Penalty phase of trial halted

Defendant's father accused of pleading with jurors during recess to spare son

He is held on contempt charges

House could receive death for killing city officer

February 21, 2004|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

The sentencing phase in Baltimore's first death penalty trial in six years came to an abrupt halt yesterday after the defendant's father approached jurors during a lunch recess and pleaded for his son's life -- an approach that landed him in jail on contempt of court charges.

Defendant Jovan House's father, James Alfred House, asked four jurors outside Courthouse East to "please spare his son," according to court documents. Within minutes, sheriff's deputies handcuffed the elder House and led him from the courthouse.

The unusual developments yesterday came after jurors began hearing arguments in the death phase of the trial involving Jovan House, 22. He was convicted Tuesday of murdering police detective Thomas Newman in 2002 in an ambush outside a Southeast Baltimore tavern.

At least two dozen stunned spectators were told to leave the courtroom yesterday after the lunch recess commotion.

"The technical term for this is, it's a big mess," said Andrew D. Levy, an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland School of Law. "The judge has an enormous amount of discretion in a situation like this to decide whether jurors are still in a position to render a fair verdict."

James House, 46, is being held without bail over the weekend, according to a bench warrant signed yesterday by Circuit Judge Albert J. Matricciani Jr. An order charging him with contempt said that he interfered and tampered with the jury.

Under Maryland law, jurors are prohibited from talking to one another or anyone else about the details of a pending case. If someone approaches them and attempts to speak about a trial in progress that they are involved with, contempt charges can be brought against that person.

The afternoon proceedings were canceled yesterday, and the trial is scheduled to resume Monday morning.

Levy said it is difficult to predict whether Matricciani will declare a mistrial, dismiss the jurors or proceed Monday as normal.

Levy said Matricciani is likely to meet with jurors individually to find out how the incident affected them, if at all.

"The test is whether jurors are still capable of following the judge's instructions," Levy said.

Neither prosecutors nor defense attorneys would comment on yesterday's events.

The incident happened about 12:30 p.m. in downtown Baltimore at Calvert and Fayette streets near Courthouse East.

Jurors had finished hearing prosecutors argue that Jovan House should be put to death, and defense attorneys contended that he should spend the rest of his life in prison.

For House's case to qualify for the death penalty, prosecutors must prove that Newman was in the line of duty when he was shot at 2 a.m. in the parking lot of Joe's Tavern in the 1000 block of Dundalk Ave.

They argued yesterday that when Newman was killed, his shift was over but that he assumed his police duties at the instant he saw his assailants with a gun and was therefore witnessing a crime.

Defense attorney William Kanwisher contended that Newman had been drinking at the bar and was not on duty when he was killed.

Kanwisher told the jury that Jovan House had a difficult childhood. He said that House was raised by his mother, Lily Robinson, who chased his father out of their home with a butcher knife when she was eight months pregnant with House.

James House, the lawyer said, was chased from the home because he had beaten Lily Robinson, who later became a crack cocaine addict.

Kanwisher then gave an emotional speech that invoked Mayor Martin O'Malley's "Believe" slogan.

"City Hall asks you to believe," Kanwisher said. "Believe that hope is greater than despair, that love is greater than hate, that life is greater than death."

Then he pointed to House and said, "Believe. Let him live."

But Assistant State's Attorney Matthew Fraling said House deserves a death sentence because he is a "coldblooded murderer."

"The state will prove to you that capital punishment is the appropriate sanction for ultimate culpability in the ultimate crime," Fraling said.

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