The state's highest court upheld yesterday the conviction and death sentence of Darris A. Ware, who was convicted in the 1999 retrial of the murder of his former fiancM-ie and one of her friends.
In a 6-1 ruling, the Court of Appeals said the former Navy seaman's assertions, on numerous grounds, that his trial was unfair had no merit.
The decision was handed down amid a national debate about the fairness of capital punishment and the exoneration of some death-row inmates in other states. Several states have put moratoriums on executions. Maryland has not.
In July last year, an Anne Arundel Circuit Court jury found that Ware fatally shot his former fiancM-ie, Betina "Kristi" Gentry, 18, and Cynthia Allen, 23, on Dec. 30, 1993, in the Severn home of Gentry's mother. In 1995, a Howard County jury had reached the same verdict and sentence.
Yesterday's ruling was a relief for Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee.
"They said there was one error and it was harmless, and I am happy with that," he said. While he cautioned that further appeals can be expected, he said, "I am happy to get over this hurdle."
All death penalty convictions are automatically appealed to the Court of Appeals.
John F. Gunning, one of two assistant public defenders who represented Ware last year, expressed disappointment with the decision. He noted that Ware can pursue post-conviction and federal appeals.
The sticking point between majority and Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, the lone dissenter, centered on the same witness as did the top court's review of Ware's first conviction and death sentence. That witness was Edward Love Anderson, who was serving a life plus 10-years sentence for murder and who was angling in Baltimore County Circuit Court to have that prison term shortened.
Anderson, a friend of Gentry and the father of Allen's child, testified that he heard the fatal shots while on the telephone from prison with Allen.
In his dissent, Bell wrote that allowing Anderson to tell jurors that an Anne Arundel County prosecutor and detective vouched for his credibility at his sentence reduction hearing could have affected jurors' view of him.
"That respected members of the law enforcement community attest to the witness's truthfulness likely will be viewed by the jury as important and worthy of credit," Bell wrote.
Writing for the majority, Judge Irma S. Raker said the "self-serving" statement by Anderson, a "witness whose credibility is in question," should not have been allowed. But the majority did not believe the statement necessarily contributed to the guilty verdict.
The Court of Appeals erased Ware's 1995 conviction in 1997, ordering a retrial.
It chastised Anne Arundel's prosecutors for failing to tell the defense that Anderson had a pending bid to shorten his prison sentence and that a prosecutor went to bat for him.
Ware is one of sixteen inmates awaiting execution in Maryland.