Bryant to get life in prison

Deal ends Balto. Co. effort to win new death sentence

Victim's father sought agreement

Man guilty of killing restaurant manager, 21

December 25, 2003|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County prosecutors have dropped their efforts to send convicted killer Courtney Bryant to death row for the murder of a Hunt Valley Burger King worker, agreeing instead to have the 21-year-old serve a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The move comes seven months after the Maryland Court of Appeals overturned Bryant's death sentence, saying the trial judge should have given more weight to Bryant's young age -- 18 -- at the time of the crime when deciding whether to put him on death row for the murder of James Stambaugh Jr., 21, during a robbery.

Prosecutor Mickey Norman said Stambaugh's father, James Stambaugh Sr., asked the Baltimore County state's attorney's office to agree to a plea deal after the appeals court ruling.

"He really doesn't have any confidence in the Maryland appellate courts," Norman said yesterday. "He really doesn't want to go through the agony of watching another sentencing hearing, having the case go up on appeal, the basic uncertainty of what would happen."

Last week, Bryant signed the plea deal agreeing to spend the rest of his life in prison.

"We'd rather take a sure thing of life in prison rather than risk another sentence of death," said Bryant's attorney, Timothy Sullivan.

Bryant was convicted two years ago in the 2000 killing of Stambaugh. Bryant and his accomplices used duct tape to bind Stambaugh, who was working as night manager at the restaurant, and then stabbed and beat him to death.

The murder was two days before Christmas. Since then, the elder Stambaugh has gone to his son's grave site at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens every day, Norman said.

"Every single day," he said. "Without question."

The holiday season, Norman said, is particularly hard for Stambaugh. The prosecutor said the plea bargain might at least bring finality to the case.

The Maryland Court of Appeals has a history of reversing and remanding Baltimore County death penalty cases.

While the county has one of the highest rates in the nation of sentencing convicted murderers to death, it also has one of the highest rates of having those sentences reversed by an appellate court, according to a 2002 Columbia University study.

Ten inmates are on Maryland's death row. The two who moved off this year, including Bryant, were convicted by Baltimore County prosecutors.

Anti-death penalty activists point to this record as proof that county prosecutors overreach in trying to put convicted murderers to death.

"They have been criticized repeatedly for being outrageously aggressive in seeking the death penalty," said Michael Stark, the Baltimore-Washington coordinator of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty.

He said that the plea bargain in Bryant's case was "certainly a victory over the whole death penalty system."

But some prosecutors and others who support the state's death penalty laws say the Court of Appeals is inappropriately using its power to legislate the death penalty issue, which results in people such as the elder Stambaugh losing faith in the judicial system.

Anti-death penalty activists "see it as a narrow victory for the death penalty because one less person is going to be executed," Norman said. "But is it justice?"

Even some judges who support the death penalty in theory have complained about the way the state's death penalty appeals system operates.

Bryant is still housed in Baltimore's Supermax prison with other death row inmates. His attorney said he should move to another prison within the month.

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