Jane Frances DeCosta was acquitted yesterday of all but one of five charges in the 1995 stabbing death of a Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital counselor and received a suspended sentence.
The 16-year-old Timonium girl, accused of involvement in the slaying for which Benjamin Scott Garris has been convicted, was ordered to a locked mental health facility out of state for at least two years or until she no longer needs treatment.
Baltimore circuit Judge Barbara Kerr Howe also imposed a five-year sentence in DeCosta's conviction for being an accessory after the fact in the slaying, suspending all but the 15 months DeCosta has spent in jail since her arrest.
Howe ordered DeCosta not to use drugs, to submit to random urinalysis and to attend school while in treatment.
"Miss DeCosta is strongly in need of being in a residential treatment program," which is "truly the only hope there may be," Howe said.
Had she been convicted of the other four charges, DeCosta could have faced a life sentence on the charges of being an accessory before the fact of murder and a conspirator to commit murder, and 30 years on the accessory and conspiracy charges to commit arson.
The verdict, by a jury of six men and six women who deliberated for nine hours in the trial that began Jan. 14, was greeted with relief by DeCosta's family and by some members of the family of the victim, Sharon Edwards, 26, a North Baltimore single mother.
"My knees are wobbly," said a flushed, tearful Richard DeCosta. "Our daughter is going to get the help she needs. I'm really relieved she can have a chance now, that she can have a future."
Earl G. Edwards, 72, the victim's father, said, "I have no control over it, and I do know she needs medical treatment going to jail would do no good."
Rodney Edwards, 31, the victim's brother, said, "I believe she had enough to shake her up" while she was in jail. "I have mercy."
DeCosta was on trial for her alleged role in the Oct. 8, 1995, slaying of Edwards, who was working her first overnight shift at the Towson mental hospital where Garris was living in a halfway house. Garris and DeCosta were students at the Forbush School on hospital grounds.
Garris stabbed Edwards 26 times and set fire to the halfway house, then escaped to Virginia Beach, Va., with DeCosta. He is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
DeCosta confessed to police she knew about the slaying plan a month ahead of time and that she supplied the hunting knife Garris used in the stabbing and a container of gasoline to help ignite the fire.
During the trial, defense attorney M. Cristina Gutierrez sought to prove that DeCosta's statement was not given voluntarily, and that her mental problems and Garris' constant talk of death and burning kept her from believing Garris when he told her he had killed Edwards. She also argued that the confession was made up because DeCosta preferred jail to being in a locked treatment facility. DeCosta, a runaway who suffers from depression and attention deficit disorder, had been placed in such facilities about 20 times by the time she was 15.
Baltimore County Assistant State's Attorney S. Ann Brobst said Wednesday in her closing argument that the confession was too detailed to be fabricated and ridiculed DeCosta's claim not to know about the plan.
Jurors began deliberating Wednesday afternoon. After the verdict was read about 3: 30 p.m. yesterday in a hushed, packed courtroom, DeCosta -- who had been withdrawn through most of the trial -- smiled.
"Jane said it felt like 500 pounds were lifted from her shoulders," Gutierrez said outside the courthouse.
Because Maryland has no appropriate treatment facilities, DeCosta will be sent to a treatment center in the southeast part of the country and her care will be paid for by the state, Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez said DeCosta probably will be moved from jail to a treatment facility within two weeks. DeCosta has been in isolation under suicide watch at the Baltimore County Detention Center and has tried to kill herself there by overdosing on pills, depriving herself of food and in "a cutting incident," Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez said she suspected that the jurors, who declined to comment yesterday, rejected DeCosta's confession and were left without enough evidence to convict her on the more serious charges.
"I can't be disappointed," said Brobst, the prosecutor. "It's not like they dismissed the evidence. We certainly did our best. We didn't, in my opinion, make any mistakes or leave anything uncovered."
Pub Date: 1/24/97