Death barred a 3rd time

Federal judge rules against execution of Baltimore man

Convicted in 1983 killings

Defense claimed jury should have been told of drug use

April 21, 2001|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

For the third time, a court has overturned the death sentence of a Baltimore man convicted in the stabbing death of an elderly couple in 1983, ruling that jurors should have been allowed to consider that John Edward "Ace" Booth was high on heroin and alcohol the night of the killings.

Yesterday's decision by U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake sets the stage for a rarity - a fourth sentencing hearing in a Maryland death penalty case. Blake vacated Booth's death sentence but did not overturn his murder conviction.

After each previous ruling, new juries have again said Booth should die for his role in a crime that stunned city residents almost two decades ago. Booth's attorney said yesterday that he is "cautiously optimistic" that the sentence this time could be reduced to life in prison.

"We're very happy with the decision," said Michael A. Millemann, a University of Maryland law professor who represents Booth. "What it basically says is that before the state can put John Booth on death row, they have to give him a fair sentencing hearing, which they haven't done up to this point."

State prosecutors could try to block a new sentencing by appealing to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Assistant Attorney General Gary E. Bair, who oversees Maryland's criminal appeals division, said late yesterday that his office was only beginning to review the judge's 111-page decision and would decide next week whether to challenge it.

Blake's ruling comes as the death penalty in Maryland is under sharp scrutiny, both in the courts and in the legislature. A proposed death penalty moratorium failed last week in the final hours of the General Assembly's session, but the Court of Appeals later in the week agreed to review the capital case of Steven Howard Oken, a move expected to delay all executions in the state for at least several months.

No execution date had been scheduled for Booth, 48, who is in prison on Maryland's death row. He was convicted in 1984 of first-degree murder, two counts of robbery and one count of conspiracy in the killing of Irvin S. Bronstein, 78, and his wife, Rose Bronstein, 75, in May 1983.

Booth, who now uses the last name Booth-El, received the death penalty for the death of Irvin Bronstein.

The Bronsteins' son, Barry Bronstein, discovered his parents' bodies two days after the attack. The couple was found bound and gagged in the living room of their home in the 3400 block of Rockwood Avenue, near where Booth lived in the Pimlico area of Northwest Baltimore.

The Bronsteins had each been stabbed 12 times, their home had been ransacked and their television, jewelry and 1972 Chevrolet Impala stolen.

The killings shocked the city and prompted a young Kurt L. Schmoke, then in his fifth month as state's attorney, to seek the death penalty for the first time.

His case has been marked by numerous legal twists.

Booth's first trial in 1984 ended in a mistrial after prosecutors failed to turn over certain information to defense lawyers before trial. He was convicted in a second trial that year and sentenced to death.

His death sentence was vacated first in 1987, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that victim statements used during Booth's trial unfairly prejudiced jurors. The high court's ban on victim testimony - later countermanded - resulted in the reversal of death sentences for several other state prisoners as well, including Willie "Sweetsie" Reid, who had been convicted of being Booth's accomplice in the Bronstein killings.

Reid later received two life sentences instead of death, but Booth was again given the death penalty in 1988. That sentence was vacated the next year by the Maryland Court of Appeals, which ruled that Baltimore Circuit Judge Edward J. Angeletti had improperly refused to admit evidence regarding parole eligibility.

A third sentencing hearing was held in July 1990. Again, jurors imposed the death penalty.

In his federal appeal that began in 1997, Booth raised a new argument - that jurors who sentenced him to die should have been allowed to consider his long history of drug and alcohol abuse and that he was intoxicated the night the Bronsteins were killed.

At the time of the killings, state law included intoxication as one of seven mitigating circumstances that jurors could weigh when considering the death penalty. But that language was removed in July 1983 - after Booth was charged, but before he went on trial.

In her ruling, Blake said the change violated Booth's constitutional right to not have the ground rules changed after he was charged with a crime. The argument that jurors should have considered Booth's diminished capacity at the time of the killings was one of 24 challenges raised in the appeal before Blake. She rejected all of his other claims and refused to overturn his conviction.

Millemann said yesterday that he thinks the role drugs and alcohol played in Booth's case is an important factor for a sentencing jury to weigh. "In this case," he said, " I think it would have made all the difference in the world."

Sun staff writer Dennis O'Brien contributed to this article.

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