Death penalty most likely in Baltimore Co. Since 1978, it has accounted for half of state's cases

Questions of equality raised

Defendants often seek to have trials moved to other jurisdictions

January 07, 1996|By Elaine Tassy | Elaine Tassy,SUN STAFF

In Maryland, the route to death row usually leads through Baltimore County.

The county's prosecutors seek the death penalty -- and the county's jurors impose it -- more often than anywhere else in the state, legal experts say.

Of the 13 convicted killers on death row in Maryland, eight committed their crimes in Baltimore County, and prosecutors in the county are seeking the death penalty in four other murder cases. The county, with 14 percent of the state's population, has brought about half of the state's death penalty cases since 1978, when Maryland reinstated capital punishment.

The contrast with adjacent Baltimore, which has about 10 times as many homicides each year, has raised questions about unequal justice.

"If you commit a murder in Baltimore County, you're far more likely to be executed than any other person. That's just a fact," said Thomas J. Saunders, chief of the capital defense division of the Office of the Public Defender.

Stuart Comstock-Gay, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, which opposes the death penalty, said, "There's something screwy about the idea that if you commit a crime on one block, you may be executed, and if you commit a crime on the next block, you may wind up with life without parole."

Behind Baltimore County's use of the death penalty is prosecutor's discretion. Before they seek the death penalty, prosecutors must prove thata defendant over age 18 was not only involved in, but actually committed, a murder. And there must be additional factors, such as the slaying of a police officer or an accompanying crime such as rape.

But once those standards are met, prosecutors may choose whether to seek the death penalty. (A judge or jury must decide whether to impose a death sentence.)

Baltimore County State's Attorney Sandra A. O'Connor said that generally, if a crime can be prosecuted as a death penalty case, it will be.

"It is our policy that if the facts of the case qualify as death penalty, and there are very few exceptions, it is my policy and belief that the decision be left to the trier of fact, whether it be the judge or jury," she said.

Contrast with Baltimore

In Baltimore, which has had an average of 324 homicides a year since 1990, compared with about 33 in the county, "just because something is death-eligible doesn't mean we ask for the death penalty," said State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy. "We do the same kind of weighing [of aggravating and mitigating circumstances] we ask the jury to do."

Consider two recent slayings -- one in the city, the other in the county.

Kenny Lamonte Brooks, 22, of the 2700 block of St. Paul St. in Baltimore robbed, raped and murdered real estate agent Lynne McCoy on Dec. 21, 1993, as she was showing him a house in the city's Hunting Ridge neighborhood.

Brooks confessed to hitting the 57-year-old woman's head against a door jamb, raping her and then smashing her head with an antique iron. He stuffed her body into a closet and drove her car to his hometown, Danville, Ill., with her credit cards in his pocket.

He was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

In a Baltimore County case, Wallace Dudley Ball, 34, of Randallstown is accused of killing Debra Anne Goodwich, a Catonsville Community College student, at her parents' home.

According to court records, she went to the Stevenson home to collect her mail on Sept. 30, 1994, while it was being burglarized. Mr. Ball, who had done some work there, is accused of shooting her five times as she walked in.

County prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. The trial has been moved to Charles County.

Uneven application found

The differences are troubling, said Edward A. Tomlinson, a University of Maryland law professor who studied the issue for the November 1993 "Report of the Governor's Commission on the Death Penalty." The seven-member commission noted the uneven application of the death penalty in Maryland but did not recommend changes.

"To limit or deprive state's attorneys of their discretion was beyond anything the commission felt it could do anything about," Mr. Tomlinson said.

Jose F. Anderson, a law professor at the University of Baltimore, said of Ms. O'Connor's approach, "That's the way she goes about putting consistency in her process."

Trial shifts sought

Baltimore County defendants often seek to shift trials -- an automatic right in death penalty cases -- to avoid pretrial publicity and to find more liberal jurors. The trials of three men facing murder charges were moved outside the county recently.

Several defense attorneys describe county jurors as more conservative and less tolerant of crime than jurors in other counties. Four of the eight killers on death row who committed their crimes in Baltimore County were tried in the county. Three of the four were sentenced to death by juries, one by a judge.

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