Slaying details open Garris trial Defense says youth's 'behavioral disorder' contributed to death

April 30, 1996|By Elaine Tassy | Elaine Tassy,SUN STAFF

The trial of 16-year-old Benjamin Scott Garris in the slaying of a counselor at a Towson psychiatric hospital opened yesterday in Baltimore County Circuit Court with gruesome details about the crime scene and murder plot.

Prosecutors intend to show that the killing of Sharon Edwards, 26, was premeditated and assert that the force and the more than two dozen stab wounds support that view.

Assistant State's Attorney Marsha Stephens told jurors in her opening statements that Ms. Edwards begged for her life and that the youth told her, "You're dead."

The single mother from North Baltimore was killed on her first night as a counselor at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital's Fordham Cottage, a licensed halfway house where the accused Frederick teen-ager was living.

Defense lawyer Howard L. Cardin said in his opening statements that Mr. Garris suffers from "episodic behavioral disorder," in which he was so obsessed by the single goal of escape that it became his entire world.

He said that when Mr. Garris learned he could be moved from Fordham Cottage to a locked facility, he decided to escape.

"It became an all-consuming goal," Mr. Cardin said, adding that the killing of Ms. Edwards was a diversion in his escape plan. "Ben Garris was so consumed in this mission that he could not appreciate the consequences of his conduct."

Mr. Garris is being tried as an adult on charges of first-degree murder, attempted arson and attempted murder in the Oct. 8 attack. He was arrested 19 days after fleeing to Virginia Beach, Va., with a Timonium girl, Jane Frances DeCosta, 15, who is awaiting trial on conspiracy and accessory charges.

For much of his trial's opening day, Mr. Garris sat quietly, with his parents and brother sitting in the first row behind him. His hair, once shaven, has grown back, and he occasionally conferred with his attorney and rubbed his eyes.

Ms. Edwards' family was not in the courtroom.

The most striking testimony came late in the afternoon from a Baltimore County homicide detective, Carroll Bollinger. He told the jury and Circuit Judge Barbara Kerr Howe that when he arrived at the cottage, there was blood in several places on the first floor and that Ms. Edwards' body had been dragged to a spot near a pool table in the recreation room.

He also testified that he saw a propane tank, several bombs and an oily liquid chemical in the cottage, and a bag in Mr. Garris' room that contained several knives and a shapening stone.

Detective Bollinger also told of an interview with Mr. Garris in Virginia Beach in which the defendant said that plans to move him to a locked facility sparked his plot to escape. The DeCosta girl was to steal her father's Chevrolet Blazer so they could "travel the country," the detective said.

Mr. Garris also told the detective that he had been reading books about murder and explosives, had devised plans to throw off authorities and had pushed up the murder date from Oct. 13 because, as a newcomer, Ms. Edwards would be "an easy target."

The youth also said he gave another cottage resident six sleeping pills in an orange drink and that Ms. Edwards was watching television when he "decided to make his move," Detective Bollinger testified. He said Mr. Garris told him that when he grabbed her blond wig and stabbed her face, she said, "I have 10 dollars. Take it," and then asked him for one of his shirts so she could stop the bleeding.

But Mr. Garris continued stabbing her, becoming frustrated that he was behind schedule and that it took so long, according to Detective Bollinger.

The youth then poured propane around the cottage, dragged Ms. Edwards' body into the recreation room, poured lighter fluid on her and ignited the front porch of the cottage, the detective said.

When Mr. Garris met with the DeCosta girl after 4 a.m., his mood fluctuated from being "down" about having stabbed Ms. Edwards to being "proud about his actions," Detective Bollinger testified.

The detective's testimony was to resume today.

Pub Date: 4/30/96

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