Trial in carjacking death to open in Howard D.C. teen faces first-degree murder charge in Basu case

April 04, 1993|By Alan J. Craver | Alan J. Craver,Staff Writer

The Pam Basu murder case, which made carjacking a national issue and struck a chord of fear in motorists, goes to trial tomorrow morning in Howard County Circuit Court.

Bernard Eric Miller, 17, of Washington, faces a first-degree murder charge for the Sept. 8 slaying. Dr. Basu was dragged to her death while entangled in a seat belt as two males drove off in her BMW while her 22-month-old daughter was in the car.

The brutal crime prompted the government to toughen the punishment for convicted carjackers. Businesses now advertise safety devices and security systems designed to thwart criminals. Even some mall officials reported that fear of the crime caused more people to shop during the day.

"This fear is really something, and it started with that case," said William Zorzi Sr., spokesman for the AAA Automobile Club of Maryland. "This poor woman has brought [carjacking] to the public's attention."

Former President George Bush signed a federal law on Oct. 26, which has resulted in 60 arrests and at least five convictions nationally, said U.S. Attorney Richard Bennett. Authorities estimate that as many as 21,000 carjackings occurred in the country last year and more than 500 occurred in Maryland.

Lawyers involved with the Miller case won't talk about their plans, but they have been working long hours to get ready.

Senior Assistant State's Attorney Michael Rexroad and two assistant state's attorneys have worked weekends and nights for the trials, while balancing other cases and duties.

"You prepare around the clock for any big case," Mr. Rexroad said. "It'sa tremendous amount of work, but you do what's necessary."

Laurack Bray, a Washington attorney for the Miller youth, has been working equally hard -- free of charge. He said he agreed to represent the teen-ager knowing that his family would not be able to pay him.

The teen is charged with first-degree murder and 18 other counts in the slaying. He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison without parole if convicted. Prosecutors are prohibited by law from seeking the death penalty for juveniles.

A co-defendant, Rodney Eugene Soloman, 27, of Washington, faces the death penalty for his role in the slaying. His trial has been moved to Baltimore County, but a trial date has not been set.

Testimony may reveal some details for the first time.

Prosecutors are expected to introduce as evidence photographs from a videotape Dr. Basu's husband, Biswanath "Steve" Basu, made of his wife and daughter as they prepared to leave for her first day of pre-school. The videotape shows the Miller youth and Mr. Soloman in the background as they walked through the neighborhood, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors are also expected to present taped police interviews in which the defendants, according to pretrial testimony, blame each other for the crime.

Results from Dr. Basu's autopsy, blood tests of the defendants, fingerprint examinations of the victim's car, and traffic accident reports also are to be revealed.

A list of 110 subpoenas in court files shows that possible witnesses include Mr. Basu, the two juveniles who traveled with the defendants, and bystanders who saw Dr. Basu being dragged by the car.

To prepare for the massive trial, Howard court officials converted the grand jury room into a media office, equipped with desks and telephones. More than 300 county residents -- about triple the usual number -- will be called in to be considered for the 12 jury seats. Judge Dennis Sweeney will preside over the trial.

A shiver of fear

The carjacking, which happened in a quiet neighborhood, sent a shiver of fear through many motorists.

Numerous agencies have since distributed brochures offering safety tips to prevent carjackings. The state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services has published 50,000 booklets and 100,000 tip sheets, said Leonard Sipes, a spokesman for the agency. The department also established an 800 number to provide information on the crime.

Meanwhile, the National Crime Prevention Council in Washington preparing anti-carjacking kits that will include posters and leaflets. The agency also is preparing public service announcements that will run on 8,000 radio stations. Even syndicated columnist Heloise offered hints on ways to prevent the crime.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer introduced two carjacking bills this legislative session. One bill, which would have added $1 to insurance fees to fund a commission to study the crime, failed. A bill that would establish a mandatory 15-year prison sentence for convicted carjackers is still alive.

Twenty other states are also considering carjacking laws. At least three states -- Massachusetts, Michigan and Virginia -- and the District of Columbia have laws aimed at the crime. In addition, several cities, including New York and Detroit, have formed task forces to combat carjackings.

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