County rules bed-sore death a homicide

Bizarre case began 9 years ago, but suspect in killing died in 1994

May 28, 1999|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County chalked up the year's fifth homicide yesterday, closing a 9-year-old case with as many twists and turns as an Agatha Christie mystery.

Winston Lee Jr., a 48-year-old quadriplegic living in a Florida nursing home, died in January of this year as a result of injuries he received in a fight in Randallstown in 1990. Nine years, two deaths, two sets of state laws and three investigations later, he's an official homicide -- but no charges will be brought in the case.

"That is so strange," said Lee's niece, Deane Miles, of Park Heights. "Now, after all these years, who do you accuse? Who's to blame?"

The answer appears to be "no one."

The man with whom her uncle fought nine years ago is dead, too -- Dennis Eugene Stockett died in 1994 of an AIDS-related illness, said his mother, Marguerite Streat. But police and prosecutors yesterday said that even if Stockett were still living, the "year-and-a-day" law would have prevented charging him.

"In Maryland until 1996, if you were assaulted, you had to die within a year and a day from that injury or there could be no prosecution," said S. Ann Brobst, Baltimore County prosecutor.

The law was eliminated in 1996, but the change was not retroactive, Brobst said.

The oddities in Lee's case stretch back almost a decade.

In 1990, his niece said, Lee was already disabled because of a spinal injury; then one night, the family got a call that Lee was in Maryland Shock Trauma Center after getting into a fight with Stockett while they were drinking.

The family rushed to the hospital, and found Lee comatose and unable to move his arms and legs. "He was two steps away from death," Miles recalled.

He survived another nine years, but the fight, which police say Lee started by hitting Stockett with his cane, paralyzed him permanently. He moved first into a nursing home in Sykesville, then into his own house, Miles said.

The burden of caring for him proved too much for his wife, who left him, Miles said. Lee went back to a nursing home, but the family felt he was too young to be surrounded by so many elderly patients. So one of Lee's five sisters, Shirley Myrick of Palm Beach, Fla., had him moved to a rehab center there, where he died in January of this year.

His death was first attributed to infection from bed sores and listed as "natural causes." That finding was reversed, however, by a second investigation begun when the family requested that the body be cremated.

"In Florida, anybody that is going to be cremated must first have approval from the medical examiner," said Bill Pellan, an investigator with the Palm Beach medical examiner's office. "Cremation is so final -- so physically final."

A bureaucratic slip-up, however, led to Lee's cremation being approved before Pellan had finished his investigation. But Pellan persisted, interviewing police and family and learning of the fight that left Lee a quadriplegic.

The quadriplegism, he concluded, caused the fatal bedsores. He classified the death as a homicide and notified Baltimore County which was unable to prosecute because of the "year and a day law."

"It's kind of a sad story," Pellan said yesterday.

The survivors of Lee and Stockett agreed.

"What I can't understand is -- this is considered a homicide? Then while he was in the hospital, shouldn't that be considered attempted murder?" said Miles, Lee's niece.

Police said the circumstances of the fight did not meet the requirement for filing an attempted murder charge.

The classification of the case as a homicide still bothers the two families involved.

"When two people have an altercation, you can't say who's who and what's what," said Streat, Stockett's mother. "There ain't nobody left to prosecute. When you say homicide, it sounds weird."

Sun staff researcher Jean Packard contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 5/28/99

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