Murder trial turns on `if,' not `who'

Death of elderly woman not homicide, defense says

April 02, 2003|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

If 71-year-old Irene Ebberts was murdered, it was a particularly heartless crime.

The frail Catonsville woman weighed only 81 pounds. She lived alone with her heart problems and lung ailments, hooked up to an oxygen machine. She often kept to her bed, the spot where her brother found her body Oct. 19, 2001.

But that "if" is in significant dispute, and it is a question jurors in Baltimore County's most recent death penalty case will decide.

Prosecutors and police have their answer. They believe the frail woman was killed during a robbery. The defendant, Wesley A. Rollins, a 55-year-old from Glen Burnie who once did yardwork and housework around Ebberts' Dorchester Road home, is accused of suffocating her with a pillow before stealing cash and jewelry.

He could be sentenced to death if convicted of the charges of first-degree murder, burglary and robbery.

"Irene Ebberts made the decision to trust Wesley Rollins," said Assistant State's Attorney Jennifer Rains in her opening statement yesterday, pointing toward the white-haired defendant. "She was rewarded by his decision to kill her."

But Rollins' defense attorneys say that Ebberts died of natural causes, a position they said will be supported by forensics experts.

"This was simply not a homicide," said Baltimore County public defender F. Spencer Gordon in his opening statement. "This was a sick, elderly lady who died of her illnesses. ... With all due respect, ladies and gentlemen, Irene Ebberts was as close to death's door as you get."

It is unusual for murder trials to focus on whether a homicide took place. Usually, the dominant question is "who," not "how."

"I would say that with the exception of rape cases, where the defense is consent, in virtually all cases the defendant is not arguing that a crime was not committed, but is arguing that he didn't do it," said Byron L. Warnken, a law professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

From Gordon's opening statement, it appears the defense will focus on the time of Ebberts' death to show that the medical examiner's office came to a faulty conclusion when it termed Ebberts' death a homicide.

He said that Ebberts' medical reports show that she died a few hours before her brother found her body Oct. 19. That contradicts prosecutors' claims that Rollins killed the woman when he burglarized her home Oct. 16, Gordon said.

But prosecutors said they will show more than enough evidence to convict Rollins of murder. They said police found him with Ebberts' possessions, and said he made comments before October 2001 about killing the elderly woman.

Deborah Dehne, described as a former girlfriend of Rollins', testified that she told police that Rollins had told her he could easily suffocate Ebberts and steal her belongings.

In a long cross-examination yesterday, Gordon tried to discredit Dehne's testimony.

"Rollins' trial is expected to continue until early next week.

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