CENTREVILLE /... — CENTREVILLE -- Stories of a childhood spent with a hard-drinking, dysfunctional family -- including a father who terrorized family members with live alligators -- persuaded a jury last night to spare the life of convicted murderer Ronald L. Scoates.
Prosecutors had sought the gas chamber for Scoates, a paroled murderer from Florida convicted last month in the July 1990 stabbing death and $50 robbery of his former housemate, Robert Austin Bell, 57, of Crownsville.
A Queen Anne's County Circuit Court jury deliberated for three hours and 45 minutes before sentencing Scoates, 31, of Annapolis, to life in prison with no chance for parole.
The jury was swayed by testimony about Scoates' childhood in Florida that was described by defense attorney Russell F. Canan as "almost too bizarre for words."
Family members and social workers said Scoates was abandoned by his mother and was pistol-whipped and taught to steal by his alcoholic father, Paul Scoates.
Attempting to describe the father's cruel streak, Scoates' sister, Susan Summers, recalled how he once tied a cousin, 16, to garage rafters by her feet and loosed a baby alligator to run around just below the terrified girl's head. She said it was not unusual for the family to awaken on Sunday mornings to a front yard filled with alligators caught by the father the night before.
In a written form outlining their verdict, jury members described the father, who died at least four years ago, as a "sadistic, lawless role model" for his son.
Young Scoates' most "positive relationship" was with a grandfather who started each day with a shot of liquor and liked to cradle a pistol in his hands while watching television, testimony showed.
The sentencing was described as fair by people on both sides of the case. Robert Bell Jr., 35, the victim's son, said he had mixed emotions about the death penalty. "I think justice has been served," he said.
During the two-day sentencing hearing, Scoates' lawyers suggested that co-defendant Michael D. Swartz was the killer.
Moments before the jury retired to consider its decision, a visibly nervous Scoates said, "I didn't kill Bob Bell. I took money from him, which is wrong. This really hurts me to ask you this. I'm begging for mercy because I don't want to die."
In its ruling, the jury found Scoates did cause Bell's death. Scoates displayed little outward reaction to the announcement of his sentence and declined to comment.
Prosecutor William D. Roessler had asked the jury to concentrate on a confession attributed to Scoates and his behavior after being paroled upon serving fewer than seven years of a 35-year sentence for second-degree murder in Florida. Testimony showed he beat his wife and was arrested on drug charges.
Canan told the jury, ". . . Mr. Scoates should never be in society again."
Swartz, 25, of Annapolis, faces the possibility of life without parole at his sentencing, scheduled today in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court.