Judge rules cellmate innocent in Baltimore Co. jail escape try

September 16, 1994|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,Sun Staff Writer

A 19-year-old Edgemere man was found innocent yesterday of charges connected to a narrowly thwarted mass escape from the Baltimore County Detention Center.

The April 28 escape attempt was prevented after two guards discovered a hole that had been made in a wall in the maximum security area.

The defendant, David B. Simms, had been moved into the cell that day with the man who dug through the wall. Circuit Judge J. Norris Byrnes said there was insufficient proof that Simms participated. The man convicted in the escape attempt testified for him.

Mark Phillip French, 29, a former Essex contractor who was in the center after being convicted of shooting a county police officer, said Simms wasn't involved. He also politely described his handiwork in detail for Judge Byrnes.

"I did that in about 20 minutes," French said. But it took about two months to collect the sheets to make the rope, which he stored in a removeable light fixture with some tools he had fashioned.

Sgt. David R. Berry testified that 26 inmates returned from the gymnasium about 7:45 p.m. April 28, and officers heard a banging on the superstructure that inmates were attempting to cover by making racket.

"I knew something was going on," Sergeant Berry said.

Then he saw French run out of the cell and found the hole. He said French told him "there was nothing personal" in what was going on and said he needed only "another two minutes" to get through the wall.

Only a 3 1/2 -inch brick veneer remained that could easily have been kicked out, the sergeant said. In French's cell, they found pieces of iron, a metal bar stolen from the gym and a 1 1/2 -inch-thick rope of braided sheets tied to the bunk.

The rope was strong enough to allow all of the inmates to climb down from the fourth floor to the roof of a two-story annex, then drop 5 feet to steps, he said. "That would have put them on the street."

Simms, now awaiting sentencing on two charges, testified that French chased him out of their cell, and "I sort of figured something was going on, that he was in there doing something." He said French could "jiggle the handle and pop the cell door. They would always run in and out of their cells."

Assistant State's Attorney James O'C. Gentry Jr. cited testimony by the sergeant that Simms was sweating, with his heart pounding, and was empty-handed although he was supposed to be going to the shower.

After hearing the testimony in a non-jury trial, Judge Byrnes said of Simms, "No doubt he knew what French was up to -- probably everybody in that pod knew at some point . . . This is a jail, not a convent."

But knowledge didn't equal participation, he ruled.

French is serving a life sentence plus 35 years for an armed robbery and the attempted murder of Baltimore County K-9 Officer James E. Beck last Halloween. The officer stopped French's truck on Pulaski Highway after the robbery and was shot three times and almost died as a result of his injuries.

French received an additional three years for the attempted escape.

Simms is to be sentenced Oct. 3 for burglary and attempted rape, after entering an Alford plea in which he denied guilt while admitting that there was enough evidence to convict him, said defense attorney G. Warren Mix.

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