A convicted rapist was sentenced to 16 years in prison for stomping a pregnant Glen Burnie woman to death nearly seven years ago.
JohnC. Easterwood, 24, maintained his innocence during a hearing Friday in county Circuit Court, turning to tell the victim's family: "I didn't kill the lady."
Easterwood entered an Alford plea -- in which a defendant does not admit guilt but concedes prosecutors have enough evidence to convict -- to a charge of first-degree murder in the July 18, 1985 death ofRebecca Elaine Claypool. Prosecutors said the woman, who was three months pregnant, was found dead in the woods near her Glen Burnie apartment.
An autopsy showed she died of blunt trauma to the head, Assistant State's Attorney Eugene M. Whissel II told the court Friday; Whissel has said the woman was stomped to death.
Easterwood pleadedguilty to escape and felony theft. Under the plea agreement, Easterwood was sentenced to life in prison for murder -- with all but 16 years suspended -- and 10 years for theft and five years for escape. Allsentences, along with a six-year sentence for theft in Illinois, areto be served concurrently.
Whissel said the plea agreement was reasonable considering the evidence available to the state. He told thecourt he would have produced an expert in tire and shoe prints to say shoes recovered from Easterwood matched a bloody shoe print found on a piece of discarded newspaper near the woman's body.
But JosephDe Paul, Easterwood's lawyer, said he was prepared to call experts who would dispute the shoe print testimony and the prosecution's claimthat Claypool was raped.
De Paul said he recommended Easterwood accept the plea because even if he had been found not guilty of murderat trial, convictions for theft and escape from the county DetentionCenter while awaiting trial could have earned him up to 25 years in prison.
Judge Raymond G. Thieme checked whether Easterwood was sure about agreeing to the plea bargain, asking him, "Is that what you want to do?"
Easterwood replied, "That's what I have no choice but to do."
During the hearing, Easterwood said Claypool's death was atragedy, but that he too was a victim of that tragedy. A muscular man with short cropped black hair and a beard, dressed in a long-underwear shirt and jeans, Easterwood told the court, "The fact stands thatI didn't kill this lady."
Thieme told the victim's family that jury trials are unpredictable and that he's seen juries acquit defendants in cases where he thought the evidence was overwhelmingly in favorof conviction.
"I know the family feels, regardless of what Mr. Easterwood says, he is guilty of taking one of their family members away," the judge said.
After the hearing, Esther Claypool said she is convinced Easterwood killed her sister-in-law.
"If he didn't do it he wouldn't have escaped," she said. "And yes, he does have to live with it the rest of his life."
Of the 16-year sentence, she said, "I think it's a crime in itself, but the prosecutor did what he hadto do. He did his best."
Whissel said Claypool was on her way to visit her mother-in-law at a high-rise senior citizen's home in Glen Burnie when she was killed. Her husband and other relatives found herbody on a path through a wooded area between the high-rise and the couple's nearby apartment.
The prosecutor said police received a tip about a month later that Easterwood, who lived in the area, had blood on his clothes and shoes the night Claypool was slain. They discovered he had been named in an arrest warrant charging him with an unrelated rape in June 1985. He was eventually convicted and sentenced tosix years for that rape.
Eleven days after Claypool was killed, Easterwood was arrested in the Bronx, N.Y. for robbery, Whissel said, adding that authorities seized his shoes for comparison with the bloody shoe print. Initial tests did not conclusively link the shoe to the print, but in 1989 an expert made the connection and Easterwood wasindicted for murder.
In January 1990, within days of the scheduled start of the murder trial, Easterwood and another prisoner escaped from the county detention center. Whissel said they stole an Annapolis man's car and traveled to Pennsylvania and Alabama before being captured while trying to break into cars near Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.