Death penalty ruling awaits judge's review

Hearing concludes in effort to overturn sentence

February 19, 2005|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

After four days of testimony and legal arguments, an Anne Arundel County circuit judge weighing whether a death row inmate's sentence should be overturned said yesterday that she will read the transcripts of the May 2000 trial and sentencing hearing, and review other evidence before issuing a written ruling.

Judge Pamela L. North must decide whether an attorney who defended convicted killer Lawrence Michael Borchardt Sr. at a capital sentencing hearing provided ineffective counsel.

The death row inmate's current lawyers say that if Borchardt's previous attorney had called mental health experts as witnesses, their testimony might have led a jury to sentence the man to life in prison rather than death.

Borchardt, 53, of Rosedale was convicted of fatally stabbing Joseph and Bernice Ohler at their Rosedale home on Thanksgiving Day 1998. The couple had twice given money to Borchardt, a heroin addict who was going door to door claiming that his wife needed cancer treatments. He killed the couple when they told him they didn't have any more money to give.

The case was moved from Baltimore County to Anne Arundel County after Borchardt's lawyers requested a venue change.

Lawyers now representing Borchardt argued that jurors might have been persuaded to send him to prison for life had they heard from the psychiatric social worker and psychologist who evaluated Borchardt and researched his social history.

The two experts testified this week that they had been prepared in 2000 to offer evidence of Borchardt's abusive childhood, brain damage and low IQ, evidence that might have been considered mitigating factors.

"All you need is one juror to decide that the mitigators outweigh the aggravators," defense attorney Brian Murphy said yesterday in his closing argument. "May this have done that? The answer has to be yes."

William Kanwisher, the attorney who took the lead in defending Borchardt at sentencing, testified Thursday that he decided against having mental health experts testify about Borchardt in an attempt to limit testimony that he feared would be most harmful to his client.

Of that plan, Murphy said, "I think he was afraid of the dark. In a death penalty sentencing, you have a dark room. You have to turn the light on. He made all his decisions - a ton of decisions - on ... zero investigation."

Prosecutors countered that there was little any attorney could have done to outweigh the horror of Borchardt's crime, his "graphic and sordid" confession to police and his criminal history, as documented in the court-ordered pre-sentence investigation.

"The reason Mr. Borchardt got the death penalty was because he committed a horrible crime and he's a horrible man," said S. Ann Brobst, an assistant state's attorney in Baltimore County.

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