Garris gets life in prison, no parole Balto. Co. circuit judge says he killed victim as he would 'an ant'

Toughest punishment

16-year-old convicted in May of murdering hospital counselor

July 16, 1996|By ELAINE TASSY | ELAINE TASSY,SUN STAFF

Benjamin Scott Garris, 16, yesterday was sentenced to life without parole for the October murder of a Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital counselor -- whose life was squashed as though she were "no more than an ant," a judge said.

In a crime that carried overtones of "A Clockwork Orange," prosecutors asked for, and received, the toughest punishment available under Maryland law -- capital punishment is not an option for a defendant younger than 18.

"I'm glad he got what he did; he deserved that," said the victim's mother, Esther Mae Edwards.

The Frederick teen was convicted in May of first-degree felony and premeditated murder of Sharon Edwards, 26, a single mother on her first night shift at a residential cottage on the grounds of Sheppard Pratt, a Towson mental hospital where Garris was living.

In a three-day trial in Baltimore County Circuit Court, he also was convicted of robbery for taking $11 from Edwards and of arson for trying to set fire to Fordham Cottage, where two other residents were sleeping.

After the crimes, he met a friend, Jane Frances DeCosta, 15, in Towson, and the two were on the run for almost three weeks until Garris was caught trying to steal candy, gum and cigarettes from a convenience store in Virginia Beach, Va.

There, he gave police a detailed confession, calling the murder a "horror show," making references to sadistic scenes in the movie "A Clockwork Orange" and blaming his behavior on deep-rooted problems at home.

A jury took a less than a day to reach a verdict. And it took much less than that -- about a half-hour -- for a sentence to be imposed.

"This court should not destroy the possibility of his receiving the treatment he needs," Garris' lawyer, Howard L. Cardin, said in a courtroom that held Garris' parents, grandmother and several friends, as well as Edwards' parents and several siblings. Cardin asked that Garris receive a life sentence with the chance to be paroled someday.

As Cardin spoke, Garris -- who appeared heavier since his arrest -- blinked his eyes, kept his head low and swallowed hard several times.

Cardin also said Garris had remorse and had written a letter expressing it.

But Cardin said Garris would not read the letter, to spare the victim's family more grief.

The two-page, handwritten letter was not made available to the public yesterday, but prosecutors said it contained both an apology and more rhetoric from the 1971 movie in which a British gang commits murder, rape and mayhem.

Assistant State's Attorney S. Ann Brobst dismissed the letter as a last-ditch effort for leniency during sentencing and said Garris "relished" in killing Edwards.

"This is a case that begs for the maximum sentence" to punish him and to protect the Edwards family and society from his doing it again, she said.

Baltimore County Circuit Judge Barbara Kerr Howe did not hesitate before speaking.

"I will remember to my dying day the testimony in this case. It was vivid. It was horrid," she said. "He squashed out her life as if she were no more than an ant on the ground."

As Garris stood, Howe pronounced sentence: life without possibility of parole for the murder, plus 30 years served consecutively for arson and 20 years served consecutively for the robbery.

Cardin then explained to Garris his appeal rights and asked if he understood. "Yes, I do," Garris whispered -- his only words during the sentencing.

He left the courtroom with his head hung low, without looking at his family.

His mother, Tina Marie Lee, cried silently.

Brobst nodded her head decisively, and the Edwards family left the courtroom -- at once upset at the loss of the youngest of 11 children and gratified about the sentence.

"The judge did a wonderful job," said Earl Gray Edwards, who with his wife is raising Sharon's son, Clayton Thomas Jr., 8. "She couldn't do no better.

"I feel sorry for the Garris family, and I feel more sorry for him. He's human, too, but he could have walked away" from the

cottage instead of stabbing his daughter, he said.

Garris said in his confession that he killed Edwards as a diversion and fled after learning that he might be transferred to a more secure facility.

Esther Mae Edwards said Garris stabbed her daughter "like she was a pig."

And though other family members said they hoped Garris got appropriate mental health treatment in prison, Mrs. Edwards did not know if that would suffice.

"He needs more than medicine," she said. "He needs Jesus."

Pub Date: 7/16/96

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