Court upholds convictions, sentencing in 1994 killings

Divided ruling says little about key objections from Williams' defense

April 13, 2000|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

An appeals court panel upheld yesterday the murder convictions and life without parole sentences of Scotland E. Williams, who was convicted of killing two lawyers in their waterfront retreat outside Annapolis in 1994.

Anne Arundel County prosecutors, who had retried the high-profile case in which they had initially won the death penalty only to lose it on retrial, said they were pleased with the Court of Special Appeals opinion, which was not unanimous.

Williams' appeal included objections to DNA testing, witness testimony and FBI records.

Williams was convicted of fatally shooting and robbing Washington-area lawyers Jose E. Trias, 49, and Julie N. Gilbert, 48, his wife, in what police suspected was one of several burglaries Williams committed in the area around their Severn River-front home. He received two sentences of life without parole plus 70 years.

The son of a former chief justice of the Puerto Rico Supreme Court, Trias was chief counsel for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, one of the nation's largest philanthropies.

Gilbert, a tax attorney specializing in nonprofit groups, was a partner in the Washington law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius.

"We're happy that it was upheld, even if it was 2-1," said Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee.

The ruling failed to bolster the use of DNA testing as prosecutors across the country had hoped, because it didn't go into detail about the first use in Maryland courts of mitochondrial DNA testing, a specialized forensic test used on old material, said Anne Colt Leitess, who prosecuted the case with Weathersbee.

Prosecutors elsewhere were looking for an opinion to support the acceptance of the procedure, she said.

But the seven-page ruling said little beyond finding no errors in the way it was admitted into evidence.

The ruling is unreported, meaning it cannot be used as precedent.

Besides DNA evidence linking Williams to the crime scene, he was shown on bank videotapes using the victims' automated teller machine cards. The Persian Gulf war veteran had some of their possessions when arrested.

The opinion, written by Chief Judge Joseph H. Murphy Jr., said a mistake that Circuit Judge Pamela L. North made in the contentious trial would have made no difference in the verdict.

Williams' mother was allowed to testify that her son told her he had both victims' bank cards and one victim's car, but she was stopped from saying that he told her he did not kill the couple.

In a two-paragraph dissent, retired Judge Paul E. Alpert said that was enough to warrant a new trial.

Assistant public defender Nancy Forster said her office will decide next week whether to challenge the ruling.

The appeals court did not address an issue of concern to many defense attorneys across the state. In 1998, North gave Williams' lawyers permission to inspect FBI records in the case, which was appealed by the FBI. The defense lawyers were then turned down by federal courts that said the defense did not follow federal procedures to get FBI records.

Williams' defense team unsuccessfully argued to the Court of Special Appeals that the case should have been dismissed because information that may have helped them may have been in the FBI files.

"At some point, the Court of Appeals is going to have to address what the effect should be on a state prosecutor who chooses to use a federal agency and then claims it cannot turn over the information because it is in the hands of a federal agency," said Nancy M. Cohen, who was one of Williams' lawyers in 1998.

Williams is being held in Supermax, the state's tightest-security prison. He tried to escape in 1995 from the Maryland Penitentiary and was repeatedly found to have banned objects in his cell at the Anne Arundel County jail.

Judge Eugene M. Lerner sentenced Williams to death in 1995, but the Court of Appeals said inadmissible evidence was used against Williams at trial and overturned the conviction. That led to the 1998 trial, where North said she was not convinced that Williams acted alone.

Pub Date: 4/13/00

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