Suspect in killing lashes out

In courtroom outburst, Harford man says he has been `kept in the dark long enough'

February 14, 2007|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,sun reporter

In his first court appearance, Charles Eugene Burns, the 35-year-old Harford County man charged with killing one of four women whose bodies were found in remote areas, lashed out yesterday at a judge and his attorneys, saying he has been "kept in the dark" about his trial.

The outburst came at the end of a hearing during which his attorneys sought to unseal records that are said to detail abuse that Burns suffered as a child. His attorneys could use the records as a possible foundation for his defense, legal experts said.

When Harford County Circuit Court Judge Stephen M. Waldron asked Burns if he understood what had just taken place, Burns shot back, "Hell no. I've been kept in the dark long enough, and I want some explanations."

In October, Burns was indicted by a grand jury on first-degree murder charges in the killing of Lillian Abramowicz Phelps, 43, of Elkton, one of four women found dead near Aberdeen last year.

Although prosecutors have not named him as a suspect in the killings of the other three women, they said the crimes were linked and a suspect was behind bars.

Prosecutors said yesterday that they are awaiting the findings from autopsies on the other women, whose bodies were badly decomposed.

Burns walked into the courtroom yesterday with his hands and feet shackled, sporting short hair and a scraggly beard. He sat down in a chair and swayed back and forth, appearing relaxed. He then turned to a reporter in the gallery.

"What're you, an observer?" he asked.

His attorney, public defender Lloyd G. Merriam, quickly had the defendant removed from the courtroom. Moments later, Burns could be heard yelling.

After returning to the courtroom, Burns looked at his feet throughout the hearing until being addressed by Waldron, who warned Burns after the outburst to watch his tone. He responded by saying that he wasn't intimidated.

"I know who I'm talking to - you're a human being. You wash your feet just like I do," Burns said.

Legal experts said Burns' attorneys could be seeking documentation of abuse and neglect to mitigate his sentence or establish an insanity defense. Yesterday's scene, however, likely would not help Burns prove that he is not criminally responsible, said Joseph Murtha, a criminal defense attorney.

"Not every outburst is an indiction of a person's lack of sanity. But for a client who has a history of mental illness, who is legitimately a person you would consider to have evaluated, those are often symptoms of a greater disorder," Murtha said. "In the end, the most important thing a judge will consider is psychiatric evaluations and not necessarily behavior in the courtroom."

Waldron said yesterday he would sign an order allowing the defense to view sealed records from the Harford County Department of Social Services that are said to detail abuse Burns suffered while under the care of his biological mother.

A family member who would speak only under the condition of anonymity has told The Sun that Burns' mother had several children and was unable to care for him. Burns bounced from home to home before being adopted, the family member said. Attempts to find the mother, identified in court documents as Ella Mae Coe, have been successful.

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

But the number of records the defense will receive remains in question. The defense has asked for files having to do with protective services, foster care and adoption.

Wilbur W. Bolton III, an attorney representing Harford's social services agency, said protective services files have not been found and may be lost.

Those files would detail any allegations of physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect and mental injury and would include reports from therapists and doctors, among others, according to the state Department of Human Resources.

Burns also faces charges that he sexually assaulted six women who authorities say were prostitutes or had problems with drugs.

He was taken into custody after a mother and daughter told police that he had taken them to a secluded area and attacked them in separate incidents.

His trial on the murder and assault charges is scheduled to begin in April.

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