DNA to play key role in double slaying retrial Married lawyers killed 4 years ago near Annapolis

May 08, 1998|By Tanya Jones | Tanya Jones,SUN STAFF

Four years after two Washington lawyers were slain execution-style in their weekend home on the Severn River, Anne Arundel prosecutors are trying for a second time to persuade a jury that an Arnold man committed the crime.

Scotland E. Williams' 1995 double murder conviction and the death sentence he requested were overturned by the Maryland Court of Appeals in July 1996.

In the retrial, which opened yesterday, jurors are in for lengthy biology lessons, according to one defense lawyer.

Prosecutors are armed with a new kind of DNA evidence not available in the first trial. But defense attorneys are armed, too, with a script of the prosecution strategy and a DNA expert to refute the type of evidence being used for the first time in Maryland.

And while the case may hinge on the minutiae of cell biology, prosecutors struggled yesterday to portray Jose E. Trias, 49, and Julia N. Gilbert, 48, as more than corpses in a photograph.

Anne Arundel State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee could not tell jurors about the free tax-law work Gilbert did for nonprofit organizations or Trias' hobbies of playing the piano and working calculus and physics problems. Circuit Judge Pamela L. North ruled those details irrelevant.

In his opening statement, Weathersbee described two successful professionals -- she a partner in the tax division of a Washington firm, he a vice president and general counsel for a national medical institute -- who married late in life and spent their weekends in the house near Annapolis.

Weathersbee ticked off the evidence he said would link Williams to the crime "literally from his head to his toes and from his hair to his shoes."

A shoe print in the kitchen, DNA evidence on a drinking glass, hair (the source of the controversial new type of DNA evidence), blood, and the watch and cash Williams was carrying when he was arrested all point to him as the murderer, Weathersbee said.

That evidence is hardly clear, countered Assistant Public Defender Michele M. Nethercott, who followed Weathersbee's five-minute statement with a half-hour opening.

The "sterile" crime scene, with no sign of ransacking, looked like the work of a professional killer, she told the 12 jurors and four alternates.

"Scotland Williams didn't kill these people," she said. "The bottom line is that there really wasn't enough [evidence] to make any sort of conclusions."

Jurors will have to decide whether they can trust the "exotic" DNA testing prosecutors will use as evidence, she said.

Prosecutors played down the significance of the evidence yesterday, saying it was another piece of a puzzle.

"It doesn't identify the defendant, but it is another way of not excluding him," Assistant State's Attorney Anne C. Leitess said.

Scientific testimony will take up much of the trial, expected to last most of the month.

Pub Date: 5/08/98

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