Man found guilty in murder of 9-year-old

Boy's death prompts bills on sentencing

February 21, 2002|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

FREDERICK -- A mentally retarded man with a history of violent and sexual offenses was found guilty yesterday of murdering and molesting a 9-year-old boy only five days after the man got out of prison under an early-release program.

The jury deliberated just less than two hours before finding Elmer Spencer Jr., 46, guilty of first-degree murder, child abduction and a first-degree sexual offense in a Circuit Court trial that fixed attention on sentencing and early-release rules involving violent repeat offenders.

Spencer, in jeans and a sweat shirt, fidgeted and stared at the floor, not seeming to acknowledge the verdict. Sentencing was set for April 30.

The family of the victim -- fourth-grader Christopher Ausherman -- expressed relief at the conviction but frustration at the system that had set Spencer free after he had served 3 1/2 years of a 10-year sentence for assault.

Spencer, a slight man prone to stuttering, was living in a wooded area near a Frederick bus depot when Christopher's naked, battered body was found in the dugout of a city-owned ball field in November 2000.

Prosecutors alleged that Spencer used the promise of Pokemon cards to entice the boy away from the apartments where he lived with his mother, Mary Voit. His mother had told him to stay on the grounds the day he disappeared.

Spencer "is a very sick person that never should have been on the street," Carl Hewitt, the boy's uncle, told reporters after the verdict. "The system failed somewhat on his part," Hewitt said.

Voit, the boy's mother, nodded several times as the forewoman pronounced "guilty" to all charges, then retreated to a witness room after the verdict to compose herself. Later, she said in a statement scrawled on a legal pad that "maybe Christopher will be able to rest in peace now."

`Christopher's Law'

The killing has led to a spate of State House legislation about the way Maryland punishes some repeat offenders. One bill being considered would allow judges to impose a life sentence without the possibility of parole on defendants with a history of child sex crimes. Another bill would restrict good behavior credits that could lead to early release.

Frederick County State's Attorney Scott Rolle, who led the prosecution of Spencer, is working with county Republican Sen. Timothy R. Ferguson and other legislators to try to enact such reforms. Ferguson has named the measures collectively "Christopher's Law" in the boy's honor.

"There is this ridiculous joke that we call `good time credits' that Spencer had accumulated. It's like frequent-flier miles for criminals," Rolle said in an interview. "Even if a guy like this is set free -- and I would argue he shouldn't be -- we can't throw him on a bus, give him $20 and say `Good luck, pal,'" the prosecutor said.

Mental health advocates have said the case demonstrates the need for better monitoring and treatment of troubled, impaired individuals such as Spencer.

Death penalty barred

Christopher's family favors giving Spencer the death penalty, said Voit's sister, Tina Hewitt. `There's not a day that goes by when we don't think of" Christopher, she said.

Rolle said he, too, would like to see Spencer executed but said he must seek life without parole because Maryland law bars the death sentence for defendants who test below 70 on IQ tests, as Spencer has, and have other behavioral impairments.

Still, Rolle said, he was hopeful that Spencer, who has spent much of the past three decades in and out of prison, would never be on the street again.

Spencer will be held at an adult detention center in Frederick County while awaiting sentencing.

During the trial, he was linked to Christopher by DNA testimony that the boy's blood had been found on the adult's shirt, boots and jeans.

Spencer's publicly appointed counsel, Frank Stillrich, said in closing arguments that police did not adequately investigate a man -- not Spencer -- who allegedly lingered near the crime scene after the body was found. The man fled when police sought to question him but later cooperated with authorities.

But, Rolle said in an interview, "It became very apparent that this wasn't the guy."

He said that the evidence against Spencer included a convenience store surveillance tape showing him buying Pokemon cards -- cards similar to those recovered in the slain boy's jacket pocket.

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