‘Death Penalty’ Moratorium Leaves Survivors, Convicts in Limbo

… Capital punishment opponents see momentum for repeal …


By Julie Bykowicz, The Baltimore Sun

7:27 PM EST, February 12, 2011

The first time John Booth-El was sentenced to die, Phyllis Bricker drove to the Northwest Baltimore home where he had tied up and fatally stabbed her parents. She looked at an empty window, she said, “as if to say, It’s all over. We got you justice.”

More than a quarter-century later, Booth-El is one of the longest-serving men on Maryland’s small death row, and Bricker has grown weary of her battles, first with the court system and more recently with the state government.

“There has been no closure, no justice,” she said, her voice rising as she jabs the notepad in which she has tracked court and legislative hearings over the years.

“We’re still here, and now we’re fighting the legislature. Nobody ever told us we’d have to do that.”

Maryland is one of 35 states with a capital punishment law, has five men on death row and is prosecuting a half dozen new capital cases. But no one has been put to death in more than five years, and the slow writing and rewriting of execution protocols has imposed a de facto moratorium on capital punishment that appears unlikely to end anytime soon.

Last week, state prison officials told lawmakers they need more time to work on the protocols — a task that so far has spanned the entire administration of Gov. Martin O’Malley, a death penalty opponent. The latest hangup: One of the chemicals used in lethal injections is no longer available in the United States.

Death penalty opponents announced recently that they have found more legislative support than ever for repeal. Leaders in the General Assembly say the bill is not likely to pass this year, but a Senate made more liberal in last fall’s election and a sympathetic governor have activists believing an end to capital punishment is on the horizon.

O’Malley said the shortage of the chemical sodium thiopentalunderscores what a laborious and complicated and time-consuming, resource-wasting legal process goes into carrying out the death penalty.”

“Our dollars are better spent on crime-fighting measures that we know work,” the governor said in an interview last week. Still, he says he has no immediate plans to push for repeal, and won’t follow the lead of former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, who in 2003 commuted to life sentences the state’s entire death row.

So Maryland will remain in the murky state of having capital punishment but not carrying it out, leaving victims’ families and prosecutors frustrated.

“We’re in the worst possible place we could be,” said Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, a former chief prosecutor in Montgomery County who supports the death penalty. “We’ve set up a system of false promises for families of victims who are left wondering why it’s not sought or why it’s not carried out in the case of their loved one.”

Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger is pursuing capital charges in the murder-for-hire case of a woman accused of hiring a hit man to kill her husband at their Towson gas station last year. Shellenberger said he has to sit with victims “to explain the realities of the death penalty in Maryland.”

“I tell them it could be 15 years or much longer, and involve so many twists and turns that I can’t even describe it now,” he said. “A lot of them don’t want to go through with it.”

The men on death row at a maximum-security prison in Western Maryland also remain in limbo.

Heath Burch was sentenced in 1996 for killing his neighbors, a husband and wife, with a pair of scissors. His attorney says Burch is aware of the de facto moratorium, but says it doesn’t alleviate any anxiety.

“He knows well that it’s subject to which way the political winds are blowing at any given time,” attorney Michael E. Lawlor said. “At any given moment, new execution protocols could be adopted, and the state could seek to go forward in his case.”

Capital cases on docket

Prosecutors have not abandoned capital punishment. The state is seeking death in six cases now pending.

This month, new Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Angela D. Alsobrooks gave notice that she will try Darrell Lynn Bellard for capital murder. In that case, four people, two of them children, were shot to death in August in what appears to be a dispute over drug money.

Alsobrooks said the victims’ family was “very much on board” with her decision.

“It’s a heinous case,” she said. “It’s still the law in Maryland. I believe the death penalty is appropriate in some cases — certainly this one.”

Thomas Leggs Jr., charged in the Christmastime 2009 abduction, sexual assault and slaying of an 11-year-old Eastern Shore girl, could be the first person prosecuted under new restrictions approved in 2009.

He is scheduled for trial in April. Last week, the Circuit Court judge hearing his case sanctioned the prosecutors’ request to seek the death penalty.

Bricker said she feels sorry for families just beginning their journey through the court system.

“Just like us,” she said, “they’ll never find justice.”

She’s saved notes and calendars over the years, keeping track of each of the dozens of court proceedings she and her husband, William Bricker, have attended.

She reads from a timeworn police report. The case began at 4:08 p.m. on May 20, 1983, when her brother discovered the bodies of their elderly but healthy parents inside their home on Rockwood Avenue.

Irvin and Rose Bronstein each had been bound and gagged and fatally stabbed. Their house was ransacked, their 1972 Chevrolet Impala missing.

Police tracked the car to John Booth-El, who’d been living with his grandmother, two doors down from the Bronsteins. After killing the couple, police believe, he called two female friends to help him steal their televisions, jewelry and silverware.

“If you see any dead bodies, pay them no mind,” Booth-El told the women, one of them testified at trial.

Three separate 12-member Baltimore City juries convicted Booth-El and sentenced him to die.

Bricker says that at one point during the appeals process — capital convicts are afforded extra steps in the criminal justice process — Booth-El turned from the defense table to look at her.

“See you next year,” she remembered him saying.

As she fought her way through the tangles of the criminal justice system, Bricker also began confronting a new obstacle: The state government.

Governors step in

In May 2002, Gov. Parris N. Glendening ordered a moratorium on the death penalty while the University of Maryland studied the way it had been applied in the state. The researchers found that capital punishment had been applied unevenly and inherently biased against black defendants.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. lifted the moratorium soon after taking office in January 2003. Two men were executed under his watch; five men in total have been put to death in Maryland since a national ban on capital punishment ended in 1976.

In December 2006, Maryland’s highest court ruled that the state could not continue carrying out executions until it developed protocols for how the lethal injections were administered. By then O’Malley, a lifelong death penalty opponent, had been elected and was waiting to take office.

After a push for repeal by death penalty opponents fell short in 2008, the legislature ordered another study, this time led by former U.S. Attorney General Benjamin R. Civiletti. The Civiletti commission found geographic and racial disparities in the way capital punishment is applied in Maryland, and recommended abolishing it.

The next year, O’Malley spearheaded an impassioned effort for repeal. It ended in a compromise of sorts, with the closely divided Senate narrowing the cases in which a prosecutor can seek death to those with DNA evidence, a videotape of the crime or a videorecorded confession by the killer.

The Brickers have traveled from their home in Pikesville to Annapolis several times over the years.

Phyllis Bricker’s voice ticks up an octave as she reviews the yellowed pages of Booth-El’s lengthy criminal record of assaults, robberies and prison escapes — all before he was arrested for killing her parents.

“This is the kind of man they’re fighting so hard to save, she said. “They are so worried about him. I will never understand it.”

William Bricker served in World War II and worked for 44 years as a television engineer.

“I have given so much,” he said. “What has this guy ever given us?”

The lawmakers who want to repeal the death penalty “didn’t sit in the courtroom with us,” Bricker said. “They didn’t hear one word of evidence. They don’t know anything.”

The governor says the death penalty is not a deterrent to crime. He points to the state’s record drop in violence over the past four years, a time in which no executions have been carried out.

“You cannot drive out darkness with darkness, hate with hate,” O’Malley said.

Jane Henderson, director of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions, called the state’s approach to capital punishment “a complicated quagmire,” from which state lawmakers and residents are increasingly turning away.

What Marylanders think

A survey of Marylanders last month found that 56 percent favored the death penalty and 26 percent oppose it.

But 60 percent of the 802 respondents told Annapolis-based Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies that life without the possibility of parole, a sentencing option in Maryland, is an acceptable alternative to capital punishment.

This year, 82 of the state’s 188 lawmakers have signed on as co-sponsors of legislation to repeal capital punishment — a record, according to advocates.

But with the General Assembly focused on resolving a $1.6 billion budget deficit, and also taking up same-sex marriage and medical marijuana, House and Senate leaders say they are unlikely to devote precious debate time to the death penalty this year.

More than 3,000 convicts are on death rows nationwide, according to the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center. The center found that 112 new death sentences were handed down last year, and a dozen states executed a total of 46 convicts.

Many states that have a death penalty statute carry it out sparingly, or not at all. More than 200 convicts are on death row in neighboring Pennsylvania, which hasn’t executed anyone in more than a decade.

In Maryland and elsewhere, the latest bureaucratic hurdle is the nationwide shortage of sodium thiopental, the first of the three-drug combination most states use for lethal injection. The company that produced the anesthetic announced last month that it would stop making it.

Thirteen states have asked the Department of Justice for help in securing a suitable drug for lethal injection. Maryland was not among them.

“It’s a bit of a mess,” said Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which takes no formal position on the death penalty, but has reported on what it says are flaws in its application. “But it’s a solvable problem. It’s not the end of the death penalty.”

Still, he said, “it’s one more delay and uncertainty for the public, who are frustrated with the fact that there’s always something.”

Oklahoma, which pioneered the use of sodium thiopental, has switched to pentobarbital, which it has used in three executions since December, Dieter said. Ohio officials said they have enough sodium thiopental for an execution scheduled this month, but they then plan to switch to pentobarbital, he said.

The sodium thiopental shortage prompted Maryland’s Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services to withdraw its draft execution protocols from a long-awaited legislative review that had been scheduled for this week.

Sen. Paul Pinsky, a death penalty opponent and co-chairman of the panel of lawmakers charged with reviewing the procedure, said the delay does not trouble him.

“This is all sort of emblematic of the stops and starts with the death penalty,” the Prince George’s County Democrat said. “There’s general ambivalence from the public. It’s not like I’ve gotten hundreds of calls from people complaining that we’re not moving quickly enough.

“Overall, the rush to execute is slowing down.”

Prison officials do not apologize for the time it has taken to write the protocols.

“The regulatory process is a long one,” corrections spokesman Rick Binetti said. He said the department is examining what other states are doing.

“It’s a serious issue, and the department needs to do its due diligence.”



On death row

•John Booth-El: Sentenced in 1984 for the home-invasion robbery and murder of his Baltimore neighbors Irvin and Rose Bronstein who were bound, gagged and stabbed to death.

•Vernon Lee Evans and Anthony Grandison: Sentenced in 1984 for the contract killing of federal witnesses David Scott Piechowicz and Susan Kennedy in a Pikesville hotel. Grandison paid Evans $9,000 to kill them.

•Heath William Burch: Sentenced in 1996 for fatally stabbing his Capitol Heights neighbors Robert and Cleo Davis with a pair of scissors during a drug-fueled robbery.

•Jody Lee Miles: Sentenced in 1998 for the shooting death of Edward Joseph Atkinson in Wicomico County.

Capital cases pending

•Thomas Leggs Jr., accused of sexually assaulting and killing 11-year-old Sarah Foxwell in December 2009 on the Eastern Shore. Trial scheduled for April.

•Karla Porter and Walter Bishop; Porter is accused of hiring Bishop to fatally shoot her husband, William Porter, in March 2010 at the Towson gas station they owned. Porter’s trial scheduled for April; Bishop’s for June.

•Lee Edward Stephens and Lamar Cornelius Harris, accused of stabbing to death correctional officer David McGuinn in July 2006 at the now-shuttered Maryland House of Correction in Jessup. No trial date.

•Darrell Lynn Bellard, accused of shooting to death four people, two of them children, in August. The bodies of Shayla Shante Sikyala, 3; Shakur Sylvester Sikyala, 4; their mother, Dawn Yvette Brooks, and their aunt, Mwasiti Sikyala, were found in a trash-filled apartment in Lanham. No trial date.

Copyright © 2011, The Baltimore Sun


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