State may seek death sentence

Arundel prosecutors are expected to pursue capital case against 2 in prison officer's killing

October 06, 2006|By Andrea F. Siegel and Greg Garland | Andrea F. Siegel and Greg Garland,sun reporters

Anne Arundel County prosecutors are expected to announce today that they will seek the death penalty for two prisoners charged with the July stabbing death of a correctional officer inside the Maryland House of Correction, The Sun has learned.

The decision was made this week, according to sources knowledgeable about the case who asked not to be identified because it is an ongoing investigation. The move follows consultation with the relatives of David McGuinn, the 42-year-old correctional officer who was slain at the maximum-security prison in Jessup.

Prosecutors would not discuss the case, saying only that they planned an announcement regarding it today, and McGuinn's relatives declined to comment.

Lawyers for the two accused prisoners, Lee E. Stephens, 27, and Lamarr C. Harris, 35, said they were not surprised. They said they have not received all of the information about the case nor met with prosecutors to try to dissuade them.

"We are dismayed by the timing of the announcement coming as it does in the middle of election season, and before we have had any chance to present evidence to the state that may mitigate against a decision to seek death in Mr. Stephens' case," Michael E. Lawlor, a lawyer for Stephens, wrote in an e-mail.

He also wrote that the money spent on a death penalty case would be better spent on safety improvements at state prisons.

Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee, a four-term Democrat, is facing an aggressive challenge from Republican David W. Fischer, a criminal defense lawyer.

William M. Davis, an assistant public defender who represents Harris, noted that Weathersbee's office has sought, though not obtained, death sentences in cases in which prisoners have been charged with killing other prisoners. Davis is one of two defense lawyers in an inmate death penalty trial that opened this week in Annapolis.

County prosecutors do not seek the death penalty in every eligible case. They typically go through a process of reviewing the evidence and strength of their case, speaking with the family and contacting defense lawyers.

Stephens and Harris, who have pleaded not guilty, are each charged with first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder. They are serving life sentences.

Harris is serving three life sentences, plus additional years for a weapons violation, for his role in the August 1989 execution-style murder of two people in a South Baltimore park. Stephens is serving a life sentence plus 15 years for the April 1997 murder of a man outside a Salisbury nightclub.

Any of several aggravating factors can provide prosecutors with the basis to seek capital punishment. They include committing murder while incarcerated or serving a life prison sentence and killing a law enforcement officer, prosecutors said earlier this year.

McGuinn was stabbed in the neck the night of July 25 by two inmates who prison officials have said either jammed or picked the faulty locks of their cell doors. He is the second Maryland correctional officer killed this year while on duty.

In January, Jeffery A. Wroten, a correctional officer at the Roxbury Correctional Institution, was killed with his own gun, allegedly by Brandon T. Morris, an inmate he was guarding at a Hagerstown hospital. Washington County prosecutors are seeking the death penalty in that case.

Described by colleagues as a by-the-book officer who strictly enforced prison rules, McGuinn was the target of death threats by inmates, and was assigned for several months to duties that wouldn't bring him into direct contact with inmates.

The night he was killed, McGuinn's supervisor reassigned him to work inside the prison doing cell checks on a tier that housed some of the prison's most dangerous inmates. Prison officials have not explained why he was assigned to work inside the prison, despite the death threats.

The Jessup prison was under lockdown at the time of McGuinn's killing, with prisoners confined mostly to their cells because of rumors that inmates were planning to attack an officer.

Court documents show McGuinn called for assistance on his radio that night. But by the time help arrived, he was found "staggering down the steps with his face and head covered with blood," the documents say. Other officers spotted Harris washing what were believed to be bloody clothes and sheets in his cell sink, court papers say. The officers also found a bloody T-shirt and bloody boots under Stephens' bed, the documents say.

A witness, unidentified in the court papers, told officers he watched as McGuinn was being stabbed, identifying Harris as the assailant, court records show.

The House of Correction, where the stabbing took place, houses about 1,100 maximum and medium security inmates. Built in 1878, the hard-to-secure prison has been the epicenter for some of the worst violence within the state's troubled prison system. Three inmates have been stabbed to death there this year.

Maryland Public Safety Secretary Mary Ann Saar told legislators at a recent hearing on prison violence that the facility will be converted to a minimum-security prison in the coming months.

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