New sites sought for murder trials Baltimore Co. jurors 'too conservative' for defense lawyers

Logistics problems

2 death-penalty cases are the subject of relocation requests

October 28, 1995|By Elaine Tassy | Elaine Tassy,SUN STAFF

Defense attorneys in two Baltimore County death-penalty cases have sought to have the trials moved to other parts of the state to find jurors who are less conservative and are less likely to convict.

In a third death-penalty case -- one involving the slaying of Debra Goodwich, 19, last year -- a defense attorney is considering requesting a change of venue because of publicity surrounding the case.

"Baltimore County notoriously has a conservative-tone juror, and I think some other type situation might be more consistent with what we need ," said Roland Walker, a defense attorney in one of the cases.

But some prosecutors say such moves don't help a defendant and inconvenience everyone who must wait for a new location and travel there.

The double-murder case of Clarence Conyers, Jr. was set for trial Nov. 27, said Baltimore County Assistant State's Attorney John P. Cox. Prosecutors say Mr. Conyers planned to burglarize the home of his girlfriend's mother, Wanda Johnson, who lived in the block of Bexhill Road in Hebbville on Oct. 21, 1994.

He and accomplice Lawrence Bradshaw believed there was a safe in the house with $25,000, said Mr. Cox, who is prosecuting the case. Mrs. Johnson was home, or came home, during the attempted burglary, and Mr. Conyers shot her, prosecutors allege.

As police began their investigation, they said, they found that witnesses could identify Mr. Bradshaw. So, the prosecutors say, Mr. Conyers fatally shot him two days later,

Mr. Conyers' attorney, Roland Walker, sought this month to have the trial moved out of the county.

"I regard the bench as conservative. It's a conservative bench and a conservative population."

Circuit Administrative Judge Edward A. DeWaters, who is responsible for finding new locations for trials, said he found an alternative site for the Conyers one Thursday, after making one phone call. Circuit Judge Alfred T. Truitt Jr. said he could hear the case in Wicomico County.

That county could be just as conservative as Baltimore County, said Michael A. Pulver, a former Baltimore County assistant state's attorney, noting that defense attorneys in Maryland request that trials be moved in about eight of every 10 death-penalty cases involving a robbery.

But Mr. Pulver, now in private practice in Towson, said that, "If I'm a defense counsel, I'm better off in Wicomico than I am in Baltimore County, because it's not in their back yard. They're not going to be as protective as a Baltimore County jury would."

However, Mr. Cox said, "To tell you the truth, I really don't think it that makes that much of a difference." Rural counties often are more conservative, he said.

On the same day that Judge DeWaters found a new location for Mr. Conyers' trial, he received a similar request from Matt Green's defense attorney. Mr. Green was charged with the Dec. 15 slayings of Esteban Santana, Jr. and Kurt John Benkert.

Mr. Green of the 1200 block of Vogt Ave. in Goodnow Hill owed Mr. Santana $200 in a drug-related debt, Mr. Santana's wife told police. He is alleged to have killed both men when Mr. Santana went to collect the money at Mr. Green's home.

The case was scheduled for trial Monday. But defense attorney Richard M. Karceski, who this week requested moving the trial, said Baltimore County jurors generally are more conservative than those in other places.

Assistant State's Attorney Frank C. Meyer, who is prosecuting the case, said: "We were prepared to try it, we were ready, the police were ready, and I know the families were ready to resolve. The defendants have a right to do that, so we'll just regroup."

In other cases he has prosecuted, changing a trial location has created "a pretty substantial delay in getting a new date," he said.

The delay benefits defense attorneys, Mr. Pulver said.

A delay could occur in the trial of Wallace Dudley Ball, a handyman charged in the Sept. 30, 1994, slaying of Ms. Goodwich, a Catonsville Community College student and part-time dancer on The Block. She was killed when she went to her parents' house in the 7900 block of Greenspring Ave. in Stevenson to collect her mail.

Mr. Ball, who had done some work at the family's home, is accused of burglarizing it when Ms. Goodwich walked in and shooting her five times.

The trial was set for Nov. 28. But Mr. Ball's attorney can request a change in location up to the last minute -- and she might.

"It's a very high publicity case," said Patricia Chappell, the assistant public defender handling it.

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