Court hears cases to clear convictions of dead inmates

January 06, 2006|By ANDREA F. SIEGEL | ANDREA F. SIEGEL,SUN REPORTER

The lawyer for a convicted killer yesterday asked the state's highest court to wipe out the Waldorf man's conviction and indictment because he died while his appeal was pending.

The request was made on behalf of Stefan Tyson Bell, who court records say died last March of a heroin overdose while serving life in prison. He was convicted in 2003 of the killing of a Gambrills teenager who police say was beaten and buried alive in 1996 because of a drug debt, his body not found for six years.

The appeal to the Maryland Court of Appeals for Bell was one of three appeals the judges heard yesterday on behalf of men who were found guilty of crimes but died before sentencing or one appeal was over.

"Everyone has sympathy for victims. But that cannot drive the law," assistant public defender George E. Burns Jr., Bell's lawyer, told the court, as the family of homicide victim Joseph Demarest and lawyers for the Maryland Crime Victims Resource Center listened.

Burns said there was no reason to tinker with a court precedent. Ruling on a closely linked question in a 1966 case, the state's top court said a defendant's conviction should be erased if he dies before his first-level appeal is completed, Burns said. Every defendant is entitled to one appeal under state law, so that one court can review allegations of a wrongful conviction, he argued.

But state Assistant Attorney General Sarah Page Pritzlaff countered that there is no clear precedent because the practice had gone unchallenged in Maryland. She said the practice stems in part from the notion that if a defendant died, it would be unfair for his survivors to have to pay the rest of his fine. Several states abandoned such traditions in recent years, she said, noting that it is an affront to crime victims.

"Society's interest is in finality of judgment," she said.

A few of the judges questioned both lawyers on the practical ramifications of their positions. They noted that if the appeal were allowed to continue and were successful, a dead defendant could neither be retried nor freed, and that if it failed, the defendant could not be jailed.andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

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