For lifers, death may be the only deterrent

October 11, 2006|By GREGORY KANE

Prosecutors should automatically seek the death penalty against inmates serving life terms who stand accused of killing corrections officers. That doesn't even need debating, does it?

Well, there should probably be no debate. But discussing it with the victims' family members should be standard policy, and that's what Anne Arundel County prosecutors did in the case of corrections officer David McGuinn. But what happens if the family members of those victims don't want the death penalty?

Last Friday, prosecutors from the Anne Arundel County state's attorney's office confirmed they will seek the death penalty for Lee E. Stephens and Lamarr C. Harris, the two men charged in the fatal July stabbing of McGuinn at the Maryland House of Correction. That decision came after deliberation and consultation, not automatically.

Harris is serving a triple life sentence for murdering two people in 1989. Stephens got life plus 15 years after he killed a man in 1997.

Both men have pleaded not guilty in McGuinn's killing. They each get the benefit of a presumption of innocence, their prior convictions and life sentences notwithstanding. So let's presume just that, and talk in general about inmate X, serving a life term for murder, who kills corrections officer Y. Isn't it a no-brainer that prosecutors should automatically - with no discussions and no equivocating - seek the death penalty for inmate X?

Anne Arundel County prosecutors said the decision to seek the death penalty for Stephens and Harris came after consulting with other prosecutors, Maryland State Police investigators and McGuinn's family, according to an article by Sun reporter Anica Butler. The consultation with other prosecutors and state police was understandable; consulting McGuinn's family was imperative.

But suppose McGuinn's family didn't want the death penalty? Would prosecutors have sought the death penalty anyway? How could we punish lifers who kill corrections officers with anything other than a death sentence?

"Your question is hard to answer, because it's a hypothetical," said Kristin Riggin, a spokeswoman for the Anne Arundel County state's attorney's office. "We don't usually deal in hypotheticals."

Riggin's office does deal in specific cases. The one she compared to the McGuinn case was that of Betina "Kristi" Gentry and Cynthia V. Allen. Darris A. Ware was convicted of fatally shooting both in December 1993.

As in the McGuinn case, county prosecutors talked to the families of both victims about seeking the death penalty against Ware. Riggin said the families were in favor of prosecutors seeking the death penalty.

Ware was convicted, but the Court of Appeals overturned the conviction in 1997, two years after Ware was sentenced to death. Judges ruled prosecutors had withheld crucial evidence about a key witness and ordered a new trial.

"The Court of Appeals almost always gives the defendant a second chance," Riggin said of capital murder cases.

A second jury convicted Ware again in 1999. He got the death penalty again. That sentence was overturned by an Anne Arundel County Circuit Court judge in 2002. By the time Ware was tried again in 2004, the families of both victims had had enough.

"They were always for the death penalty," Riggin said. "But they were worn down." Frank R. Weathersbee, who's been Anne Arundel County's state's attorney for what only seems like forever, decided not to ask for the death penalty a third time after consulting with the families of the victims.

McGuinn's family, Riggin said, also supports seeking the death penalty for the men accused of killing him. That was only one reason Weathersbee's office sought the death penalty. Another, according to Riggin, was the matter of those all-important aggravating factors in capital cases.

"There are three of 10 aggravating factors in this case," Riggin said, "the most important [being] it was a law enforcement officer who was killed. And he was unarmed. These men and women who work in our correctional facilities at Jessup aren't armed. Inmates often are."

If we can't have the common decency to arm corrections officers, shouldn't we at least let them have the comfort of knowing we're not going to allow them to be fair game for lifers hankering to put a shank into them? Riggin said that Weathersbee, when asked if seeking the death penalty would serve to deter inmates from killing corrections officers, answered, "I hope it does."

You can bet the corrections officers working throughout the state are hoping the same thing. Deterrence might be their only protection. Riggin put it best.

"If we tell someone who got life without parole there's no death penalty," she said, "then there's no deterrent."

Opponents of capital punishment, so quick to claim the death penalty is not a deterrent (there are several studies showing just the opposite) need to ponder those words.

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