County's killers deserve death

February 21, 2002|By Sandra O'Connor

NINE OF the people on Maryland's death row were prosecuted by the Baltimore County State's Attorney's Office. The Sun, in a recent editorial, accused the office of charging the death penalty in cases that meet the "bare minimum requirements."

So readers can make their own assessment, I have outlined the basic facts behind each defendant's conviction.

I leave it to the public to decide whether the facts justify my decision to seek the death penalty, for it is the public that the laws are written to protect. Which of these families would you want to tell that their case is not serious enough for death penalty consideration?

Steven H. Oken. On Nov. 1, 1987, Mr. Oken entered Dawn Marie Garvin's apartment claiming he needed to use her telephone for an emergency. He raped her, abused her sexually and shot her twice in the head, leaving her naked; that was how her father found her. Mr. Oken's own expert witnesses described him as a sexual sadist. Ms. Garvin was the first of three women Mr. Oken murdered over three weeks.

Wesley E. Baker. On June 6, 1991, on parole for armed robbery and having been in prison four times, Mr. Baker approached Jane Tyson in the parking lot of the Westview Mall and shot her behind her ear at point-blank range in front of her grandchildren.

Courtney Bryant. On Dec. 23, 2000, Mr. Bryant and an accomplice attacked James Stambaugh Jr., 21, the night manager, at the Burger King in Hunt Valley during an armed robbery. Mr. Stambaugh's face and hands were taped. He was stabbed eight times and was taken outside to the rear of the restaurant, where he was bludgeoned repeatedly in the face and head with heavy metal objects.

John A. Miller IV. Shen D. Poehlman was 17 on July 26, 1998, when Mr. Miller lured her to his apartment claiming he needed a baby sitter. He sexually assaulted her and strangled her to death with his belt.

Anthony Grandison and Vernon L. Evans Jr. While in federal custody awaiting trial on federal drug charges, Mr. Grandison hired Mr. Evans to kill the two main witnesses against him. On April 28, 1983, Mr. Evans entered the Warren House Motel in Pikesville and assassinated one of the intended federal witnesses and the sister of the other. Both Mr. Grandison and Mr. Evans had extensive prior criminal records.

Kenneth Collins. On Dec. 7, 1986, Mr. Collins and an accomplice spotted Wayne L. Breeden, 36, vice president of Maryland National Bank, using an ATM machine in Loch Raven Village. Mr. Breeden was followed to a nearby rowhouse, where Mr. Collins approached his victim from behind and demanded his money. Mr. Collins struck Mr. Breeden over the head with a gun, fracturing his skull, then shot him in the back. Mr. Collins took the $80 that Mr. Breeden had withdrawn from the ATM.

Kevin Wiggins. On Sept. 15, 1988, Mr. Wiggins drowned Florence Lacs, 78, in the bathtub of her Woodlawn apartment during a burglary.

Lawrence M. Borchardt. Joseph and Bernice Ohler were a couple in their 80s who lived on Golden Ring Road in Dundalk. On Nov. 25, 1988, Mr. Borchardt, a career criminal with a history of violence, approached the couple in their home demanding money for drugs. When Mr. Ohler refused, Mr. Borchardt attacked them with a knife, eviscerating Mr. Ohler, who died in his flowerbed. His wife also was killed.

The Sun's editorial stated that Baltimore County prosecutes "any case that meets the bare minimum requirements for death." What the editors do not tell their readers is what constitutes the "bare minimum" under Maryland law.

First-degree murder, no matter how heinous or tortuous, is not enough to qualify as a death penalty case; even serial murders do not qualify. The death penalty is the maximum penalty set by the legislature for persons convicted of murders that are:

First-degree murder.

Committed with an aggravating circumstance set out in the law -- rape, arson, robbery, kidnapping, etc.

Also, the person committing the murder must be the wielder of the death weapon -- the shooter, stabber, strangler, etc.

The death penalty law is written so that a prosecutor can choose whether to charge under it. It's up to each jurisdiction to determine whether to ask for the maximum penalty.

Since the discretion is left to the prosecutor, it's my opinion the discretion should be used without bias as to any factor, including race and gender.

Baltimore County's policy is that if there is sufficient, credible evidence to prove all of the above requirements without use of a co-defendant's statement, and if the victim's family understands and is willing to endure the length of the process, its prosecutors will charge under the death penalty law.

A lot of time, effort and careful consideration go into the charging process and the trial of these cases. The Sun's editorial calls this process a "cop-out." Is applying the law and doing so in a fair and consistent manner a "cop-out"? I think not. I call it prosecutors taking their job seriously.

Sandra O'Connor is state's attorney for Baltimore County.

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