U.S. court reinstates man's death sentence

Lawyers argue rules changed unfairly after killing of couple in '83

March 26, 2002|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., reinstated yesterday a death penalty sentence for John Edward "Ace" Booth, reversing an April decision by a U.S. District Court judge in Baltimore.

In its decision, a three-judge panel ruled that the possibility that Booth had been using alcohol and heroin when he murdered Irvin and Rose Bronstein in 1983 did not warrant granting him a new trial.

Booth's attorneys, Michael Millemann and David Walsh-Little, said they would file appeals with the full 13-judge 4th Circuit and the Supreme Court if necessary. The Supreme Court vacated the first of Booth's three death sentences in 1987.

"I think that his case is headed toward the Supreme Court again," Millemann said. "There are important issues in it that affect death-row inmates across the country."

Booth is Baltimore's only death-row inmate.

At issue is whether legal ground rules were unfairly changed after Booth was charged with killing the elderly Pimlico couple 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 - now known as Booth-el - was charged.

Booth's first trial in 1984 ended in a mistrial. He was convicted later that year and sentenced to death for killing Irvin Bronstein.

Three years later, the death sentence was vacated by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Another jury sentenced Booth to death in 1988, but that sentence was vacated by the Maryland Court of Appeals. At a third sentencing hearing in July 1990, jurors again imposed the death penalty.

In April, U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake upheld Booth's murder and robbery convictions, but vacated his death sentence - setting the stage for a rare fourth sentencing hearing.

Yesterday's decision was good news for Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, who said in a statement that she was "pleased that the court has reinstated the jury's verdict in this case," and "hopeful that this decision will bring some closure to the victim's family in this devastating murder case."

The Bronsteins 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.

Barry Bronstein, the victims' son and the one who found his parents' bodies, said yesterday his family wants the ordeal to end.

"I have been waiting for almost 19 years for my parents' murder to be resolved," the Pikesville man said. "No family should have to endure endless years of trials and appeals for closure. Enough is enough."

Gary Bair, chief of the state attorney general's criminal appeals division, said that should Booth lose an appeal to the Supreme Court, "then at that point, the state would seek a death warrant."

"Any time the federal court upholds a death sentence, then it's one step closer to the execution warrant," Bair said.

Millemann and Walsh-Little said they were disappointed by yesterday's ruling.

"We're very disappointed in their ruling, and we think that in the end the merits of John's case will prevail," Walsh-Little said. "We will continue to try to fight for him as best as we can."

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