Judge declines to block arson trial

April 01, 1993|By Alan J. Craver | Alan J. Craver,Staff Writer

A man charged in a string of fires in Ellicott City and Columbia may stand trial in Howard Circuit Court, despite a Baltimore County ruling that says he is not criminally responsible in a similar case.

The attorney for James McManus, 34, of Catonsville, had argued that the charges should be dismissed because of a Baltimore County Circuit Court ruling in December that his client was not criminally responsible by reason of insanity for two Catonsville arsons on March 12, 1992.

In a decision yesterday, Howard Judge Dennis Sweeney said that the ruling has no bearing on the pending charges because it addressed Mr. McManus's condition on a specific day in Baltimore County.

"The issue of whether or not [Mr.] McManus is criminally responsible for the offenses which occurred in Howard County has yet to be determined by a court of law," Judge Sweeney said. "This is the ultimate issue of fact for this court to determine."

Mr. McManus faces trial on four counts of arson and two counts of attempted arson in Howard Circuit Court for four fires last March.

Joseph Murtha, a Howard assistant state's attorney handling the case, said he expects to pursue the trial. The case is set for trial May 10.

Clarke Ahlers, a Columbia attorney for Mr. McManus, maintains that experts who examined his client and testified in the Baltimore County case did not form separate opinions for each of the incidents.

Mr. Ahlers argued at a hearing in February that the Baltimore County ruling should cover the Howard cases because of the similarity between the incidents.

He noted that the fires were set the same way, about the same time, and in the same area. He added that police in Howard and Baltimore counties investigated the arsons together and that the Howard and Baltimore county courts ordered one psychiatric evaluation for Mr. McManus after his arrest.

Mr. McManus, a former pharmacist, testified in December that voices told him to set the fires. He initially told police that he set as many as 50 fires from January to March 1992. He later admitted to about a dozen arsons.

In the Howard cases, he is accused of setting fire to a shed in Columbia March 1; the Dorsey Hall Mansion in Ellicott City March 2; a robe at the Sears Roebuck & Co. store at the mall in Columbia March 3; and a chair at the Antique Depot in Ellicott City March 11.

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