Death penalty an election-year ploy, lawyer says

May 16, 1994|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Sun Staff Writer

An article in the same edition incorrectly reported a December plea entered by Alvin W. Gross, a Shady Side man who is charged with first-degree murder. He pleaded guilty to marijuana possession.

The Sun regrets the errors.

A local defense attorney said last week that Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee is engaging in election-year politics by seeking the death penalty against his client and another man.

"It sure smacks of something political," said Peter S. O'Neill, who is representing Alvin W. Gross, 20, of the 4800 block of Atwell Court, Shady Side.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Mr. Gross has been charged in the slaying of Margaret Courson, 28, of Annapolis. She was found Dec. 19 on Leitch Road near Tracy's Landing, the victim of multiple gunshot wounds and rape.

County prosecutors also will seek the death penalty against Darris A. Ware, a 23-year-old former Navy seaman from Glen Burnie. Mr. Ware has been charged with first-degree murder in the death of his estranged fiancee, Betina Krista Gentry, 18, and her neighbor, Cynthia Vega-Allen, 22, both of Severn. The

women were found shot to death in Ms. Gentry's home Dec. 30.

Mr. Weathersbee, who is seeking re-election, has sought the death penalty three times since being appointed state's attorney in October 1988. He denied that politics influenced his decisions in the two cases. He said they were based on Maryland law.

"Mr. Gross' case involved a rape and a murder, and there aren't much worse circumstances imaginable," he said. "The murder occurred execution-style, which just adds to the culpability."

Under Maryland law, the death penalty can be applied in first-degree murder cases where prosecutors believe the defendant killed the victim and there are aggravating circumstances, such as there being multiple victims, or the killing occurred during a kidnapping or rape.

But Mr. O'Neill maintained that Mr. Gross' criminal history, which includes two drug arrests, isn't serious enough for him to be considered a violent offender who should be sentenced to die. Mr. Gross has one conviction for marijuana possession, Mr. O'Neill said. Court records also show that he pleaded guilty to possession of cocaine, marijuana and PCP on Dec. 7, 1993. He was to be sentenced two weeks after he was charged in Ms. Courson's death.

"If you look at my client's history, there's no convictions for any violent offenses, and the point is he's a young man and he's got little or no record of any sort. Why go with the death penalty?" Mr. O'Neill said.

Mr. O'Neill said the state's case largely rests on the words of Sidney Scott, an acquaintance of Mr. Gross who claims to have witnessed the killing but has refused to testify before a grand jury or take a polygraph test. He also did not come forward until three weeks after the killing, Mr. O'Neill said.

"It's just beyond belief to me that they're seeking the death penalty based on that kind of case," he said.

Mr. Weathersbee said the state has other evidence, but he declined to elaborate.

Anne Arundel County Public Defender Alan R. Friedman, whose office is representing Mr. Ware, said he does not consider it a death penalty case. Mr. Friedman declined to say whether he thought politics played a role in the prosecutor's decision.

Although two people were killed, there's no evidence to indicate the killings occurred in the commission of other felonies, he said. "They weren't killed in the course of a robbery, or a rape," Mr. Friedman said.

Mr. Ware's trial is to begin Thursday. Mr. Gross' trial is set for June 7.

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