Suspect's defense wants file opened

Judge is asked to unseal record of early abuse, neglect of Harford man accused in killing

November 03, 2006|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,Sun reporter

An attorney representing a 35-year-old Harford County man accused in the killing of an Elkton woman has asked that records documenting childhood abuse and neglect of the suspect be unsealed, offering a possible preview into the defense strategy.

On Tuesday, a grand jury indicted Charles Eugene Burns in the killing of Lillian Abramowicz Phelps, 43, of Elkton. Her body was one of four found in remote areas around Aberdeen in recent months - crimes that authorities have said might be linked.

For weeks, Burns' public defender and prosecutors have been wrangling over legal issues stemming from separate charges filed in July, alleging that Burns sexually assaulted and attacked six other women. A judge separated those cases into six trials, scheduled to begin Dec. 4.

In a motion filed in those cases Oct. 23, the defense asked a judge to unseal records from the Harford County Department of Social Services describing abuse and neglect of Burns as a minor. His birth name was Charles Eugene Coe.

"The information contained therein is substantially likely to support a defense or mitigation of the charges in this case," public defender Lloyd G. Merriam said in the court filing.

A family member who asked not to be identified has told The Sun that Burns' biological mother had several children and was unable to care for him. Burns bounced from home to home before being adopted, the family member said. The mother, identified in court documents as Ella Mae Coe, could not be located for comment yesterday.

Andrew D. Levy, an attorney and criminal law professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, said the motion could indicate that the defense is considering an insanity defense in the assault cases.

"It's possible that they are at least considering or investigating whether there is a possibility of an insanity defense," Levy said. "Evidence of his terrible childhood would not be admissible on the issue of whether he committed these murders."

The defense also won a motion asking Baltimore television stations WJZ, WBFF and WMAR to produce unedited tapes of a news conference held by Harford County State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly in September after two bodies were found in a field in Perryman. At the conference, Cassilly said that the bodies appeared to be linked to two others found over the summer, and that a man who was in custody was suspected in the crimes.

Merriam has argued that Cassilly's statements were improper, causing "irreparable prejudice to the defendant." But prosecutors said the conference was necessary to allay public fears about the killings.

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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