Mother of murderer's last victim wants answers

June 09, 1993|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,Staff Writer

The mother of a 33-year-old woman killed last week by a convicted murderer on work release sought yesterday to unravel mysteries surrounding the incident.

"I want to know . . . why wasn't he monitored to find out where he'd be at all times?" Peggy A. Harris asked. "How does a prisoner who has committed any type of crime have so much freedom?

"If this had've gone the way it should've gone, she would still be here. How can a person go through a prison gate and no one check his bag?" Ms. Harris asked, referring to a duffel bag that her daughter's assailant carried the day of the shooting in which he had hidden a handgun.

Ms. Harris, accompanied by some of her other seven children, friends and supporters, asked her questions outside the Maryland Penitentiary on East Madison Street in Baltimore, near where her daughter, Francine Evangela Harris, was shot.

Rodney G. Stokes, who was serving a life sentence plus 10 years for a 1975 murder, shot Ms. Harris twice in the head June 2 before he fatally shot himself, police said.

Stokes, 41, who had been an inmate since 1988 at the Baltimore Pre-release Unit in the 900 block of Greenmount Ave., worked at a city Department of Public Works yard at Gay and Oliver streets, prison officials said. On the day of the shooting, he said he was ill and was going back to the pre-release center. His supervisor informed the Division of Correction that Stokes was taking sick leave.

Stokes took a cab to the penitentiary's Forrest Street entrance and asked a correctional officer for permission to go to the construction trailer where Francine Harris worked, prison officials said.

Carrying a duffel bag, Stokes walked into the trailer and asked two employees if he could see Ms. Harris, prison officials said. As Stokes walked toward the office where she was working, he pulled a .38-caliber handgun from the bag. When he reached Ms. Harris, Stokes shot her twice in the head, killing her. He then turned the gun on himself.

He and Ms. Harris, who worked for the construction company contracted to demolish the penitentiary's South Wing, had dated for a year and had ended their relationship two weeks before the murder-suicide.

Since the incident, all 134 inmates serving life sentences in the state's pre-release system were moved to medium-security prisons. The action removed lifers from work release and furlough programs, and from minimum-security facilities.

Dwayne Harris, 29, the victim's brother, said he spent a short period in the Baltimore City Detention Center a year ago for a misdemeanor offense and was not allowed outside the facility.

"He was a public murderer," he said of Stokes. "I had none of that freedom and I was just a misdemeanor offender. He was a felony murderer."

Peggy Harris said that she is considering filing suit against the state correctional system alleging negligence in monitoring its inmates.

She said that if she filed suit and was successful, any monetary damages would be used to cover the medical expenses of Francine Harris' 18-year-old son, who has bone cancer.

Cpl. J. Scott McCauley, a spokesman for the Division of Correction, would not comment on a possible lawsuit. He said the incident is under investigation, but could not say when it would be completed.

Michael A. Freedman, the Harris family's attorney, said he will wait until the outcome of the state's investigation before he determines whether a negligence suit should be filed.

But from what he has heard of the incident involving Stokes, Mr. Freedman said, negligence was apparent at "every level" of the correctional system.

"There's negligence all along the line, from putting this fellow in a pre-release system when he's sentenced to life plus 10 years to being able to walk out of work release by saying that he's sick," Mr. Freedman said.

"He's sentenced to life plus 10 years, why is he on work release? What does he need to get out for?"

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