DeCosta conspiracy trial nears Girl accused of being accessory after killing of Sheppard Pratt counselor

Case to open Thursday

Seasoned attorneys face off in sequel to Garris murder conviction

November 11, 1996|By Elaine Tassy | Elaine Tassy,SUN STAFF

Jane Frances DeCosta, the Timonium girl charged with conspiracy and being an accessory after her former boyfriend murdered a Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital counselor last year, will go on trial Thursday in what could be a closely watched legal fight.

In the prosecution's corner is one of the county's most seasoned assistant state's attorneys, S. Ann Brobst, who has a confession from DeCosta, 16, saying she knew someone was going to die and didn't care.

In DeCosta's corner is high-profile defense lawyer M. Cristina Gutierrez, who will argue that DeCosta did not know that convicted murderer Benjamin Scott Garris, then 16, had killed anyone until weeks after DeCosta fled with him to Virginia Beach, Va.

Circuit Judge Barbara Kerr Howe will preside at the Baltimore County trial, which is expected to last no more than two weeks.

"I predict it will be quite a battle," said David B. Irwin, a former Baltimore County prosecutor who is now a criminal defense lawyer. "The prosecutors have an excellent team, a horrible crime, and her own statement."

The defense case is also strong, he said.

"Tina Gutierrez is excellent with juries, and I think she will tell the jury they have to get inside the mind of her client and determine what her client was thinking." Jurors would have to find that DeCosta had criminal intent to convict her, he said.

"I don't think it's an impossible case for either side."

Prosecutors have charged DeCosta with conspiracy and being an accessory to first-degree murder in the Oct. 8, 1995, stabbing death of Sharon Edwards, 26, who was working her first night as a counselor in a halfway house at the Towson psychiatric hospital where Garris, a troubled teen from Frederick, was living.

According to court testimony, Garris stabbed the North Baltimore woman 26 times, stole $11 from her, set fire to the cottage where two of his housemates were sleeping, then fled to Virginia Beach with DeCosta, who was his classmate at a school on hospital grounds.

He was convicted in May of first-degree murder. In July, he received a life sentence with no chance for parole, which he is serving at the Maryland House of Corrections Annex in Jessup.

DeCosta is accused of giving Garris the hunting knife he used in the stabbing, a soda can of gasoline, and of intending to go with him from Virginia Beach on a cross-country trip.

Brobst, who heads Baltimore County's Circuit Court division and has been an assistant state's attorney since 1979, said she and Assistant State's Attorney Marsha L. Stephens will need about two days to present evidence.

They will rely on a statement DeCosta gave Baltimore County Detective Carroll L. Bollinger, in which DeCosta said: "I was aware someone was going to die, but for some reason, I don't know, I didn't care."

Bollinger testified during a pretrial hearing that DeCosta made the statement because she wanted the truth to be known.

Brobst said the detective's testimony about the statement should cinch the case for prosecutors. "The case is primarily Carroll Bollinger," she said.

Gutierrez plans to spend about a week painting a different portrait of DeCosta.

She maintains that DeCosta, a chronic runaway with a history of mental problems that include depression, "did not actively participate in planning the escape" and confessed to her alleged involvement because she preferred jail to returning to a psychiatric hospital.

Gutierrez also said DeCosta "had no conscious knowledge or belief" that Garris would follow through with the slaying because he regularly talked of death, dying, bombing and gore.

"No professional thought he was truly dangerous," Gutierrez said of mental health experts who examined him before his conviction. "[DeCosta] shouldn't be held to a different standard."

DeCosta, who has been in jail since shortly after the crime, has remained a shadowy figure in the case.

At court hearings, she usually looks glum, dressed in a T-shirt, a black skirt or shorts, black fingernail polish and flat black shoes. Shackled at the ankles, she sits frozen and speechless for hours, her head held low and her eyes averted.

"She is worried about the trial," according to Jamie Lynn Arthur, 15, who, before Jamie's conviction and 30-year-sentence in a separate murder trial, shared a jail cell with DeCosta and says they are best friends.

DeCosta's worries may be understandable, because three pretrial hearings in her case ended unfavorably for her.

In the first, Gutierrez sought to have the case heard in juvenile court where, if found delinquent, DeCosta could have been held until she turned 21 -- as opposed to the life term she could face if convicted as an adult. Howe denied the motion.

Next, Gutierrez wanted DeCosta's six-page confession declared inadmissible, claiming it was not made voluntarily. Howe denied that motion as well.

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