Murderer to make final plea for his life Md. judge could stay execution scheduled for tomorrow in Fla.

February 22, 1996|By Scott Higham | Scott Higham,SUN STAFF

A day away from death in Florida's electric chair, a condemned murderer from Miami will make one final plea for his life in a Baltimore courtroom this morning, claiming he should be kept alive long enough to argue he was wrongly convicted of rape two decades ago in Maryland.

In the unusual, high-stakes drama, lawyers for murderer Rickey Bernard Roberts will go to Room 5B of the U.S. District Courthouse at 8 a.m today and try to persuade a federal judge to delay the Florida execution, set for 7 a.m. tomorrow.

The arguments will determine whether Roberts will wind up back in Maryland 22 years after he raped and tried to kill a 17-year-old girl in Salisbury. Or if he will die in the electric chair for bludgeoning a Miami man to death with a bat, then raping his date in 1984.

In 11th-hour legal wrangling yesterday, defense lawyers argued their case in courtrooms in Miami and Baltimore. They lost in Miami and are scheduled to continue their arguments in Baltimore's federal court this morning.

In yesterday's Baltimore hearing, defense lawyers argued that Roberts had ineffective legal counsel during the Salisbury rape case -- a case that Miami jurors factored into their close 7-5 vote to send Roberts to the electric chair.

A 6-6 vote would have sent Roberts to prison for life.

"We have an execution scheduled for Friday," defense attorney Todd Scher told U.S. District Judge Andre M. Davis. "Why we're here is we are exhausted. We can't go anywhere else."

Judge Davis said he was concerned that Florida might execute Roberts "willy-nilly" without giving him one last hearing in Maryland. But the judge also said the case raises serious constitutional questions.

Among them: Can a federal judge halt an execution in Florida, order the defendant into federal custody, then transport him to 5/8 5/8 TC state court hearing on the Eastern Shore in a two-decades-old case?

The judge seemed torn.

"Right now, the likelihood that I will issue a stay is sufficiently great," Judge Davis told defense lawyers and prosecutors. "But the idea that a federal judge in Maryland can stay an execution in Florida doesn't roll off the tongue easily."

Judge Davis delayed his ruling. He ordered Florida prosecutors to fly to Maryland and be in his courtroom this morning while he waited to see how a Miami judge ruled in another last-ditch defense motion last night. The Miami judge denied that motion.

By appealing in Maryland, defense lawyers are trying to return Roberts to the roots of his criminal past. The Salisbury case dates to 1974, when Roberts was picked up on charges of rape and attempted murder.

Roberts forced his way into a Salisbury apartment, where he sexually assaulted a 17-year-old girl, choked her, then stabbed her five times with a pair of scissors before leaving her for dead. Roberts was 16 at the time.

In 1975, a Wicomico County judge convicted Roberts without a jury trial and sentenced him to life in prison, plus 15 years. Paroled after serving just six years, Roberts headed to Miami.

On June 4, 1984, Roberts approached a car parked along the Rickenbacker Causeway over Biscayne Bay and tried to fondle a female passenger. When her date, George Napoles, 20, objected, Roberts bashed him to death with a baseball bat and then raped the woman twice.

In 1985, a Miami jury convicted Roberts. After reviewing the similarities between the Maryland rape case and the Miami murder, jurors voted by the narrowest of margins to send Roberts to the electric chair.

For years, defense lawyers have been fighting the death sentence. With most of their appeals exhausted, they turned to Maryland -- a state with a long history of liberal laws controlling when and how often convicts can challenge their convictions.

Roberts filed his challenge to the Maryland conviction last year, shortly before a new state law took effect that now limits convicts to filing motions within 10 years of their convictions. Roberts just beat the deadline.

In his challenge, Roberts claims his lawyer never told him a jury could have heard his case, and his lawyer never told him he could be tried as a juvenile. Roberts also says his lawyer urged him to testify in his own behalf without helping him rehearse what he might say on the stand.

"Counsel's performance was, to say the least, unreasonable if not totally incompetent," said Mark Timothy Scully, a lawyer who reviewed the rape case files for defense attorneys.

Last November, a Wicomico County judge scheduled a hearing in the case. But when Florida authorities refused to allow Roberts to attend, the judge said he could not proceed without the convict's presence.

In federal court yesterday in Baltimore, defense lawyers asked Judge Davis to delay Roberts' date with the electric chair, nicknamed "Sparky" by Florida prison officials, giving them enough time to hold the hearing in Salisbury.

If Roberts isn't executed tomorrow, his death warrant will expire next week. It could be years before a Florida governor signs another. Already, 365 inmates are on death row in the state.

Prosecutors argued yesterday that a federal judge shouldn't be involved in their state case.

"The state of Florida wishes to execute the judgment," said Fariba Komeily, an assistant attorney general for Florida. "There is no jurisdiction to enter a stay and interfere with the Florida judgment."

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