CENTREVILLE — A 31-year-old Annapolis man faces a possible death sentence after being convicted yesterday of first-degree murder in connection with a July 1990 robbery that earned him about $50 in change.
Prosecutors will ask a Queen Anne's County jury to condemn Ronald Lamar Scoates to the gas chamber when the sentencing phase of the man's trial beginstomorrow. The jury deliberated for two hours and 20 minutes yesterday before finding Scoates guilty of first-degree murder in the death of 52-year-old Robert Austin Bell.
Members of Bell's family hugged one another after the verdict wasread. In explaining his support for the decision to seek the death penalty, Robert Bell Jr., the victim's 35-year-old son, said, "Imposing the death penalty and carrying it out sends a message to the criminal element that the citizens of this great state will not tolerate these kinds of vicious murders."
The elder Bell had briefly allowed Scoates to live in his Crownsville home after Scoates was paroled in April 1990 after serving less than seven years of a 35-year sentence for second-degree murder in Florida.
Evidence presented during Scoates' trial and during the trial of co-defendant Michael David Swartzshowed Bell was killed inconnection with the robbery of quarters andother change from a glass jar kept in the man's bedroom.
Testifying during Scoates' trial, another co-defendant, Henry Louis Stettler IV, quoted Scoates as saying after the slaying, "I can't believe I killed a man for 50 bucks."
Stettler pleaded guilty in February to being an accessory after the fact in Bell's slaying and to conspiring to commit robbery, charges that together carry a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison. Under a plea agreement, Stettler, the son of chief Deputy State Treasurer H. Louis Stettler III, agreed to testify against Scoates and Swartz.
Assistant State's Attorney William D. Roessler said he will askfor jail time for Stettler but will tell the court that he "cooperated" in his co-defendants' prosecutions.
Roessler said he will ask for a sentence of life without parole at Swartz's sentencing next month. Swartz, 25, of Annapolis, is the adoptive brother of Larry Swartz, who is serving a 12-year prison sentence for murdering their parents in Cape St. Claire in 1984.
Testimony in the trials showed the three men had been drinking heavily July 9, 1990,when they drove to Bell's home in the 100 block of First Street in Crownsville. Swartz and Scoates entered the home while Stettler waitedin a car in a church parking lot about 100 yards away.
Bell's body was discovered by a paper boy who came to collect payment. He had been stabbed 48 times, testimony showed.
Explaining the decision toseek the death penalty for Scoates, Roessler pointed to the prior murder conviction and added, "In our opinion, the evidence shows Mr. Scoates to be the primary actor in the crime."
During closing arguments yesterday, which wrapped up Scoates' four-day trial, Roessler stressed that Scoates' bloody shoe print was found next to Bell's body, indicating he took an active role in the stabbing.
Defense lawyer Jeffrey B. O'Toole suggested that it wasSwartz who "went off" and stabbed Bell.
In convicting Scoates of "felony murder," the jury saidthat Scoates was participating in a robbery with Swartz when Bell was killed -- and not necessarily that Scoates actually stabbed the man.
In order to obtain a sentence of death, prosecutors must show that the defendant committed murder under aggravating circumstances -- such as during a robbery -- and was a "principal in the first degree."
After the jury convicted Scoates yesterday, Russell F. Canan, another defense lawyer, asked the judge to allow the jury to address the questions of whether Scoates actually stabbed Bell and what his sentence should be separately. John W. Sause Jr., a Circuit judge for Queen Anne's County, said he would rule on the request by this morning,explaining that he was not opposed to the idea but was unsure whether he could legally do so.
The trial was moved to Queen Anne's County at the request of lawyers for Scoates; state law grants a defendant in a capital murder case an automatic change of venue on request.
When the jury announced its verdict, Scoates hung his head. A gasp was heard from the section where 10 members of Bell's family sat.
Roessler said, "At this point the best Mr. Scoates can hope for is a life sentence. That makes me feel that the jury has already achieved an important measure of protection for society, and what happens beyond that is up to the jury."
Defense attorneys Canan and O'Toole would not comment on the mitigating circumstances they are prepared to present to persuade the jury to spare Scoates' life. Linda Scoates, the defendant's estranged wife of four years and mother of his 3 1/2-year-old daughter, said her research shows her husband's past is "justdevastating."
"If he was steered in the right direction, the results, where his life is, would be different," she said after the verdict was announced. She refused to elaborate.