A judge ruled yesterday that prosecutors cannot seek the death penalty for John Lee Leonard Jr., convicted last month in the 1989 murder of a former Annapolis High School basketball star.
A county Circuit Court jury found Leonard guilty Nov. 27 of first-degree felony murder -- of committing murder in the course of a felony -- but found himnot guilty on charges of attempted armed robbery, assault with intent to rob and conspiracy to commit robbery and murder.
Because of the acquittals, Judge Eugene M. Lerner agreed yesterday with defense attorney Edward Smith Jr., who said prosecutors could not cite the "aggravating circumstance" that the murder was committedduring the course of the robbery. Without a specific aggravating circumstance, as identified by law, the state cannot seek the death penalty.
Prosecutor Frederick M. Paone argued that the jury's guilty verdict on felony murder showed it felt the crime was committed duringthe course of a robbery. He urged the judge to let the jury considerwhether Leonard should be sentenced to the gas chamber, saying the not-guilty verdicts on the robbery-related charges might have been theresult of a compromise among jury members or a misunderstanding of instructions on "aiding or abetting" a robbery.
"He hasn't been totally exonerated," Paone told the judge.
Countered Smith, "The juryis being asked to overrule itself."
During Leonard's trial, co-defendant Wendell J. Daniels testified he was attempting to collect a drug debt from 21-year-old Reno T. Green when Leonard shot the former basketball star. Daniels, who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the July 8, 1989, slaying and agreed to testify against Leonard inreturn for a 15-year sentence and incarceration in a "protective environment," is to be sentenced Friday.
Leonard, 42, of the 1800 block of Copeland Street in Annapolis now faces a maximum penalty of life in prison with no chance for
parole at his sentencing, scheduledfor next Tuesday. Smith said he will ask the judge to throw out Leonard's conviction, arguing that his client cannot be guilty of felony murder if he has been found not guilty of the accompanying felony.
"I think there is a natural resistance to letting him off scot-free,but if the law mandates it, the law mandates it," said Smith, a private attorney from Baltimore assigned to the case by the public defender's office.
"Primarily, what the public defender's office wanted me to do was try to save this man's life," he said after the judge's ruling. "I feel good now."