A 40-year-old Hampstead man pleaded guilty yesterday in Howard County Circuit Court to the shotgun murders of a woman and her date in June 1997, escaping the death penalty in return for two consecutive life sentences.
Smith Harper "Skip" Dean III, a pit-beef entrepreneur, pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder. He was arrested at the home of a woman he had dated, Sharon Lee Mechalske, who was recorded on the telephone with a police dispatcher pleading with Dean for her life as he forced his way inside her home on Wolf Hill Drive, just outside Hampstead.
Police found Mechalske, a 38-year-old mother of two who was a systems analyst at Procter & Gamble in Hunt Valley, dead at the scene. Kent Leonard Cullison, 30, an Arcadia mail carrier, died later at Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore.
Carroll County State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes planned to seek the death penalty if Dean was convicted on both first-degree murder counts.
Jury selection was to begin Monday in Howard County, where the trial was moved at Dean's request because of pretrial publicity. The trial was expected to last two to three weeks with Carroll Circuit Judge Raymond E. Beck Sr. presiding.
But yesterday morning, as Beck was to hear routine motions, he called the lawyers into his chambers and proposed the deal.
The judge was concerned that 10 years to 15 years of appeals would be too hard on the victims' families, the attorneys said.
"We thought it was going to be a long day of proceedings," Barnes said. "But the judge said if [Dean] pleaded guilty to the most serious charges that the court would sentence him to life without parole.
"He said he wanted to give the family some sense of finality," he said.
Two of Mechalske's relatives walked away from the proceeding in tears, saying they thought Dean deserved the death penalty.
"I was looking forward to hearing the people testify and to finally hear exactly what happened," said William Sneckenberger, 47, of Parkton, Mechalske's half-brother.
Barnes and Mechalske family members said they opposed the decision because Dean's actions warranted the death penalty.
Barnes had called the families to tell them to come to courthouse because "something was going to happen," said Mechalske's father, Gilbert Schaffer, 66. "It came as a surprise to everyone."
Only the two Mechalske relatives were able to get to court in time.
"The judge's decision made it a lot easier for someone," Sneckenberger said. "It didn't make it any easier for us."
"The crimes you committed are vicious," Beck told Dean yesterday. "You have a long life ahead of you. You'll have a long time to visit and revisit -- maybe even be haunted -- by your actions."
Dean expressed remorse for his crime and hung his head in court.
"He thought if there wasn't the trauma of a court appearance, it would be good for everyone," said Richard S. Bernhardt, an assistant public defender in Howard County who represented Dean with M. Gordon Tayback.
Dean had filed an insanity defense and has been at the Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center since he nearly succeeded in committing suicide in June by swallowing anti-depressant medication. He apparently hoarded the medication while in the Carroll County Detention Center in Westminster.
Mechalske had dated Dean but had stopped because he was too possessive and jealous, family members said at the time of the killings.
Pub Date: 4/03/99