New Death Penalty Law, Appeals Delay Trials in Killing of Correctional Officer

… Five years later, trial scheduled for one prisoner, no date set for other …

By Andrea F. Siegel, The Baltimore Sun

10:46 AM EDT, July 25, 2011

In the past five years, since corrections officer David McGuinn was stabbed to death at the hulking House of Correction in Jessup, there have been major changes in Maryland’s corrections system — new prisons built, new programs added and tighter controls to rein in gangs and contraband. The House of Correction itself, once notorious for violence and corruption, has been closed and is set to be torn down.

Yet one thing hasn’t changed: The two prisoners accused of killing McGuinn still haven’t come to trial.

Monday marks the five-year anniversary of the slaying of McGuinn, a by-the-book officer and father of three. Many of those familiar with the case have been frustrated by the delays in prosecuting the men accused of killing him, and former colleagues wonder why no one has yet been held accountable.

“Shame on the system. It’s a blight on the criminal justice system that neither of them have gone to trial yet,” said Patrick Moran, director of AFSCME Maryland, a collective bargaining unit for correctional officers. “I understand that people have their rights, but it’s unacceptable.”

For McGuinn’s family and correctional officers, the case ought to be put to rest, he said.

Laura Blankenship, president of the local union, said the message that correctional officers are getting is that “we can be killed in the line of duty and nothing happens.”

The prosecutions of Lee Edward Stephens and Lamarr C. Harris have been stalled for a variety of reasons, including battles over medical records and the difficulties of scheduling a 10-week trial. Another delay occurred because the wife of a defense attorney was scheduled to give birth. Most notably, Maryland legislators rewrote the state’s death penalty law in 2009, and that has led to a new set of legal challenges.

In the meantime, Stephens, 32, and Harris, 41, continue to serve their life-plus sentences for murders committed while they were teenagers.

Legal experts say that the two cases are working through the weighty and time-devouring issues that have always come with capital cases. But now, the state’s new death penalty law — which limits the cases in which prosecutors can seek capital punishment — will face its first major challenges.

That carries even more potential for delay, said Scott Shellenberger, the state’s attorney for Baltimore County.

“I certainly understand that the law has changed in the interim, but 5 years is way too long before you get to trial,” said Shellenberger, who is not involved in the two cases. “Now there are four new ways for lawyers to muck it up. Good lawyers are going to challenge it, based on the new law.”

Memory lives on

For the first few years after McGuinn was killed, on one evening each July, somber correctional officers, flickering candles in hand, gathered outside the House of Correction to remember their fallen colleague. There was no vigil last year; but the union’s local is planning an event for Monday night.

McGuinn’s memory lives on in other ways: his name is on plaques, on the signpost of a road entering the Jessup prison complex, and on faded T-shirts remembering him as a “fallen hero.”

By all accounts, the 42-year-old, nicknamed “Homeland Security” by coworkers, was thought of as a humble and serious man. He was so private that only after he was killed did people who worked alongside him know that he had children — a daughter, son and stepdaughter — and a large family in Atlantic City, N.J.

Only if they’d read his obituary in his hometown newspaper would they have learned that his family tree includes Matthew Henson, known as one of the first Arctic explorers to reach the North Pole, and that he had worked in Atlantic County as a certified emergency medical technician.

McGuinn’s relatives did not respond to interview requests for this article or could not be reached.

On July 25, 2006, McGuinn was taking head counts in the prison’s west wing when he was attacked from behind shortly before 10 p.m. He was on Tier E4’s narrow, cell-lined catwalk when he was repeatedly stabbed.

A day later, Stephens and Harris were charged in the death. In the statement of charges, Maryland State Police said Harris was identified by a witness and that clothes of both prisoners were bloody. Public safety officials said it appeared that one of the two inmates had a tool used to tamper with cell door locks. Prosecutors have never offered a motive for the attack.

Since the arrests, the cases have become a legal odyssey.

“Capital cases take a long time. … The standard for defense lawyers is greater — you leave no stone unturned,” said Baltimore lawyer Andrew Levy, who teaches part-time at the University of Maryland law school and has handled capital cases.

“But here it involves the killing of a law enforcement officer, a correctional guard. In terms of the institutional interest, there is no case that’s going to be more important to the prosecution,” he said.

Part of the defense’s work is creating a comprehensive record for appeal. Challenges must be raised before and during a trial to create that record. What some see as delaying tactics, others see as necessary due process.

“Patience is the best way to work with this,” said Commissioner of Correction J. Michael Stouffer. “Folks would like to have it behind us and just close this chapter in history, but we know that it is a legal process and we have to work through the process.”

3 life sentences

Whether Harris will go to trial at all, much less soon, is unclear — he may be declared mentally incompetent. He already is serving three consecutive life sentences, plus time for a weapons violation for his role in an execution-style murder of two people in August 1989 in a South Baltimore park. In prison, he has been convicted of at least two more violent crimes, including assaulting a correctional officer, which added a year to his sentence.

In August 2008, a psychiatrist at the state’s Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center thought he was incompetent to stand trial. A tug of war ensued over whether prosecutors could have access to Harris’s treatment records. Defense lawyers objected, citing doctor-patient confidentiality.

Those objections were rejected, first by Judge Paul A. Hackner, then at the Court of Special Appeals and finally, late last month, at the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court.

If found incompetent, Harris would be kept in state custody. If he is found mentally fit for trial, courtroom disputes over the death penalty would resume.

Stephens, the second defendant, has been serving a life sentence plus 15 years after being convicted in the April 1997 killing of a man outside a nightclub in Salisbury.

Stephens’ case appears to be closer to trial, with a date set for January.

“We are definitely going this time – famous last words, I know, but I think we are definitely going this time,” said Gary Proctor, one of Stephens’ lawyers.

It generally takes between two and three years to get a capital case to trial in Maryland due to the complexity of death penalty laws, said Professor Michael Millemann, of the University of Maryland law school.

“The difference here in Maryland is that in the course of this [case], the Legislature changed the law,” he said.

In 2009, the General Assembly adopted death penalty curbs, reserving capital punishment for murders in which there is DNA or other biological evidence that links the defendant to the murder, a videotaped confession or a video recording of the crime.

In August 2009, Stephens’ lawyers challenged that aspect of the new death penalty law. It took more than a year and half to resolve.

Court documents show prosecutors expect to use DNA evidence at Stephens’ trial.

“We’ve been ready since the first trial date, but we understand that the death penalty process is a prudent one,” said Kristin Fleckenstein, spokeswoman for the Anne Arundel County State’s Attorney’s Office, which is prosecuting the two suspects. She would not discuss details of the cases.

Legal experts say that prison murder cases are notoriously difficult to prosecute because of inmate witnesses, crime scenes tainted by the need to control prisoners and related hurdles.

Even those who did not know McGuinn continue to mark the anniversary of his death.

John Wolfe, the warden at the Jessup Correctional Institute, the next building over from the House, will on Monday hold a moment of silence and say a few words to his staff, much the way he notes the anniversary of the killing of other correctional officers.

“Every July 25 I tell people what happened,” Wolfe said. “I tell them ‘he came to work, a regular guy, and he didn’t get to go home to his family.’ … The details are not that important. … ‘You have to have your guard up.'”

Copyright © 2011, The Baltimore Sun


… But, the MD Legislature certainly had no problems putting “common-sense” to death, did it? …


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