Records denied in bus killing

Judge won't let slain inmate's parents have correctional officers' hearing transcripts

March 22, 2006|By JENNIFER MCMENAMIN | JENNIFER MCMENAMIN,SUN REPORTER

For more than a year, Melissa Rodriguez has been trying to find out everything she can about what happened to her son, who was strangled on a prison bus traveling between Hagerstown and Baltimore.

And for more than a year, she has been frustrated in her efforts.

She hit another roadblock yesterday when a Baltimore County judge turned down a request for transcripts and records from the disciplinary hearings of the two correctional officers fired in the aftermath of her son's death. A fellow inmate is accused in the killing.

"I was promised that I would be told what happened to my son, and why, once those hearings were over," she said tearfully after the hearing. "I'm still waiting."

Philip E. Parker Jr., 20, was serving a 3 1/2 -year prison sentence for an unarmed robbery involving a pellet gun when he was killed Feb. 2, 2005, on the early-morning bus ride.

Another inmate, twice-convicted killer Kevin G. Johns Jr., 23, has been charged with first-degree murder in Parker's death and, if convicted, faces the possibility of being sentenced to death. Pretrial hearings in the case have been scheduled for June in Worcester County, where the case was moved after Johns' attorneys requested a change of venue.

Lawyers for Rodriguez and her former husband, Philip E. Parker Sr., say they intend to file a civil lawsuit this year in connection with the death of the couple's son. Those attorneys had asked to be able to sit in on disciplinary hearings last fall for two correctional officers who were assigned to the bus on which Parker was killed and were fired after his death.

Judges with the state's office of administrative hearings denied the request, ruling that the hearings were a personnel matter and not open to the public. Parker's parents appealed that decision to the Baltimore County Circuit Court, seeking transcripts of the completed disciplinary hearings.

Judge Dana M. Levitz needed only 23 minutes to determine that he agreed with the previous rulings. He did not ask to hear from Scott S. Oakley, an assistant attorney general with the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, who said nothing in court after confirming his name for the record.

"I know why you want the information," the judge told Michael A. Mastracci, an attorney representing Parker's parents. "If I were a family member of Mr. Parker's, I'd want to sit there and listen to every single word said. But the regulations are clear."

Reiterating that the administrative hearings are confidential personnel matters, Levitz added, "This is a matter of an employer disciplining an employee. You have no standing there."

Mastracci acknowledged in an interview after the hearing that his clients will have the right to request documents and interview the fired correctional officers and other witnesses during the discovery process of the civil suit he intends to file. But he said that getting access to a transcript of the disciplinary hearing would have offered the fullest explanation of what went wrong on the bus the morning Parker was killed.

The lawyer said he also worries that he might be denied the information for the same reasons during the civil proceeding.

Rodriguez remains frustrated.

"Don't you think it's pretty ugly that you have to file a lawsuit to find out what happened?" she asked. "I know Philip was an inmate, but he was a person and he was mine, and someone has to answer to me."

jennifer.mcmenamin@ baltsun.com

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