Booth death penalty is argued yet again

3 sentences set aside since killings in 1983 of Pimlico couple

January 24, 2002|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

RICHMOND, Va. - Three times, Baltimore juries have sentenced John Edward "Ace" Booth to death for his role in the 1983 stabbing deaths of an elderly Pimlico couple. Three times, courts have overturned the death penalty in his case.

A state prosecutor argued yesterday that Booth should not get a fourth chance and asked a federal appeals panel to reject a lower court's finding that jurors should have been told to consider that Booth was high on heroin and alcohol the night of the killings.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judges appeared inclined yesterday to grant the state's request. One judge noted that the sentencing jury had heard testimony about Booth's $200-a-day heroin habit. The judge also questioned whether there was evidence that Booth was intoxicated.

"Are we debating a moot point?" Chief Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III asked at one point in yesterday's arguments. A decision by the three-judge panel is expected in the spring.

At issue is whether the legal ground rules were unfairly changed after Booth was charged in the killings of Irvin and Rose Bronstein, a homicide and robbery case that stunned city residents nearly two decades ago.

At the time, Maryland law allowed defendants to claim that intoxication reduced their ability to understand that they were committing a crime. That language was removed two months after Booth was charged, and at trial then-Baltimore Circuit Judge Edward J. Angeletti instructed jurors not to consider intoxication as a mitigating factor.

In a ruling in April, U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake in Baltimore said the state law should have been applied as it existed when the crimes were committed, not when Booth was sentenced. Blake did not overturn Booth's murder and robbery convictions, but she vacated his death sentence - setting the stage for a rare fourth sentencing hearing, should the 4th Circuit judges agree with her decision.

Booth's lawyers argued yesterday that Blake's decision was correct. They said the appeals court should allow a new sentencing hearing, where jurors would be told to weigh Booth's drug use as they consider whether to impose the death penalty.

"He has a right to a hearing where a jury makes that decision on life or death, with that instruction," said David Walsh-Little, a Baltimore defense attorney.

But Assistant Attorney General Annabelle L. Lisic said the change did not violate Booth's constitutional right to a fair trial or block jurors from weighing evidence that Booth had a longtime heroin habit when he was charged in the Bronstein murders.

"It was simply a change in emphasis, that's all," the prosecutor told the appeals judges. "It certainly didn't remove [intoxication] from consideration by the jury."

Responding to questions from Wilkinson, Lisic said no trial evidence clearly showed that Booth was high on drugs or booze. Instead, she said, testimony at trial suggested that the crimes were committed because Booth and his co-defendant, Willie "Sweetsie" Reid, needed money to buy drugs. Reid received two life sentences.

The case against Booth, who is 48 and uses the last name Booth-el, has been marked by legal twists. He was convicted in 1984 of first-degree murder, two counts of robbery and one count of conspiracy in the killings.

Irvin S. Bronstein, 78, and his wife, Rose, 75, were found bound and gagged in their home. Each was stabbed 12 times, the house was ransacked and their television, jewelry and car were stolen.

Booth's first trial in 1984 ended in a mistrial after prosecutors failed to turn over information to defense attorneys. He was convicted in a second trial later that year and sentenced to death for the killing of Irvin Bronstein.

The death sentence was vacated in 1987 by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that held that victim statements used in Booth's trial unfairly prejudiced jurors. A jury sentenced Booth to death in 1988.

The second death sentence was vacated by the Maryland Court of Appeals, which ruled that Angeletti had improperly refused to admit some evidence about parole eligibility. At a third sentencing hearing in July 1990, jurors again imposed the death penalty.

The Bronsteins' son and daughter have closely followed each development. They and their spouses were in court yesterday, listening to the hourlong arguments.

"We've been here through it all," said Barry Bronstein, who discovered his parents' bodies. "We're going to see it to the end."

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