DeCosta confession in counselor's slaying admissible, judge rules Her lawyer had argued police illegally coerced 15-year-old's statement

July 24, 1996|By Elaine Tassy | Elaine Tassy,SUN STAFF

Prosecutors won a major victory yesterday when a judge refused to suppress a confession linking Jane Frances DeCosta to a hunting knife allegedly used in the murder of a Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital counselor.

In a two-day hearing, DeCosta's lawyer argued that the statement was illegally coerced from the 15-year-old Timonium girl. But prosecutors maintained that the teen freely made the statement, which describes her connections to convicted murderer Benjamin Scott Garris -- including supplying the knife.

As a result of Circuit Judge Barbara Kerr Howe's ruling in Baltimore County Circuit Court, prosecutors can show the six-page statement to jurors when DeCosta's trial begins Nov. 14.

Prosecution is helped

The confession will significantly strengthen prosecutors' case against DeCosta as an accessory and conspirator in one of the county's most notorious murders -- one committed in October by her then-boyfriend.

Howe sentenced Garris, 16, this month to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

DeCosta is charged with being an accessory before and after the fact of first-degree murder of Sharon Edwards, 26, a counselor at the Towson psychiatric hospital. DeCosta also was charged with conspiracy in the Oct. 8 murder and conspiracy to arson, and as an accessory before the fact of arson.

Garris stabbed Edwards 26 times, tried to burn Fordham Cottage -- a halfway house on the hospital grounds where he was living and where two people were sleeping -- then fled with DeCosta to Virginia. They were captured within a month.

Rights violated, defense says

M. Cristina Gutierrez, DeCosta's attorney, argued during the hearing that her client's statement -- in which she talks about the knife, supplying Garris with gasoline and her indifference to the crime -- was given involuntarily.

Gutierrez charged that county Detective Carroll L. Bollinger created coercive conditions when explaining DeCosta's legal rights by stating that a lawyer or her parents might not let her speak.

"Police are not free to discuss whether or not it is a good idea to have a lawyer," Gutierrez said.

Mental state cited

She argued that DeCosta's age and mental problems kept her from making a sound decision about whether she wanted to talk to police.

And she said Bollinger illegally detained DeCosta at police headquarters Nov. 2, the day he got the confession, because he did not have an arrest warrant.

Assistant State's Attorney S. Ann Brobst, the prosecutor, argued that the detective did not need an arrest warrant when he took DeCosta to headquarters. She said he had reasonable cause to detain DeCosta, whom Garris had implicated in his own graphic, detailed confession.

'Exemplary' conduct

Brobst said police went beyond the call of duty in explaining to DeCosta the ramifications of her statement.

"The conduct of the police was exemplary," she said.

Howe made her decision without taking any extra time to deliberate. "I find under the totality [of circumstances under which the statement was given] the confession will not be suppressed," she said.

Pub Date: 7/24/96

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