Death sought in killing of officer

Jessamy takes rare step in cases of two charged in fatal shooting of detective

March 28, 2003|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

In a courtroom packed with uniformed police officers, prosecutors announced yesterday that they will seek the death penalty against two men accused of killing a Baltimore detective last year, even though some say the case is not clear-cut for capital punishment.

Asking for death is an unusual step for State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, who has sought it one other time in her eight-year tenure.

Her spokeswoman said Jessamy found the Nov. 23 execution-style shooting of Detective Thomas G. Newman to be "heinous."

At an arraignment yesterday in Baltimore Circuit Court, prosecutor Donald Giblin said he would seek the death penalty against Jovan J. House, 21, and Raymond Saunders, 22, who are accused of shooting Newman.

Prosecutors will seek life in prison without parole for Anthony A. Brown, 34, who is accused of driving the getaway car.

All pleaded not guilty to counts including first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder. Saunders also is charged with attempted murder in the shooting of Ricky Henson, who was at the scene.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark, who attended the arraignment with several of his top commanders and about 100 officers, said the decision to seek the death penalty was an "excellent" one.

"I'm happy with the charges," Clark said. "It's about time."

Police say three men ambushed Newman, a 12-year veteran of the force, outside Joe's Tavern in Southeast Baltimore.

The motive was retaliation against Newman for testifying against Saunders' half-brother, who was convicted of shooting the detective during an ambush in April 2001, prosecutors and police say.

The half-brother, Andre A. Travers, was sentenced in June to 30 years in prison for attempted second-degree murder.

Jessamy did not attend yesterday's hearing, even though it was a few steps from her office, because she does not want "undue publicity toward her or her office," said her spokeswoman, Margaret T. Burns.

Prosecutors initially were not sure if the case was eligible for the death penalty.

Under Maryland law, only certain killings are eligible for capital punishment, including those that result in the death of an on-duty police officer or those committed during the commission of another felony.

To seek capital punishment in this case, the state has to prove that Newman, 37, was on duty when the shooting occurred.

Prosecutors have decided that though Newman was not on duty in the bar, they believe that he assumed his police responsibilities when he walked out and saw the gunmen.

Burns said the state's attorney's office is confident the case is eligible for the death penalty.

But Fred W. Bennett, a lawyer who represents Steven H. Oken - the next man scheduled to be executed from Maryland's death row - said the case has room for doubt.

"It would be a clear case if he was on duty in uniform or undercover," Bennett said. "I don't think the case is free from doubt. The case is on the fringes, if at all."

Edward A. Tomlinson, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, said he understands why prosecutors are proceeding with the case, even though it could be difficult.

"The purpose behind the statute is to give extra protection to police officers," Tomlinson said. "But there might be some difficulty because criminal statutes are interpreted narrowly."

Newman's younger sister, Rena Martin, attended the hearing carrying a framed picture of her brother and his 3-year-old daughter, Alexandria.

"We are here to represent a voice that was silenced," Martin said. "All we ask is that justice is served swiftly."

The trial for the three men is set for June 4 before Circuit Judge John M. Glynn.

Baltimore is not accustomed to handling death cases.

Of the 200 or so homicide cases that cross Jessamy's desk in a year, about 70 are death penalty-eligible.

She has sought capital punishment once, and that was for convicted murderer Joseph R. Metheny.

In 1998, he was sentenced to death in the killing of a woman. The death sentence was reversed on appeal, and Metheny was given life without parole.

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