Killer's ex-lawyer testifies

Psychiatrist's '04 findings at issue in resentencing

March 08, 2007|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,Sun reporter

A high-profile criminal defense attorney who represented a convicted killer at a capital sentencing hearing in 2004 testified yesterday that he did not object to the potentially damaging testimony of a psychiatrist, likening the doctor's assessment of his client to "throwing water on the wet man."

Defense lawyer Warren A. Brown took the stand yesterday in Baltimore County Circuit Court at a motions hearing for his former client, Jamaal K. Abeokuto, whose death sentence was overturned on appeal and who is scheduled for a second capital sentencing hearing next month.

Attorneys representing Abeokuto, 27, sought unsuccessfully to have the psychiatrist's testimony, diagnosis and report barred from that proceeding. They argued that their client's statements to the doctor -- including his explanation for why he killed his girlfriend's 8-year-old daughter -- were involuntary because they were made during a court-ordered psychiatric evaluation.

Circuit Judge Patrick Cavanaugh denied the defense request yesterday, ruling that Abeokuto was "clearly advised" by the doctors who evaluated him at prosecutors' request that anything he told them could be used in court.

Sentenced to death for kidnapping and killing Marciana Ringo in 2002, Abeokuto saw his sentence overturned last year by Maryland's highest court. Although the killing occurred in Harford County, the murder case was moved to Baltimore County after the defense requested a venue change.

Brown's appearance on the witness stand capped a day and a half of legal arguments and testimony from psychiatrists, social workers and psychologists who assessed Abeokuto in the months before his 2004 trial.

Tied up in court this week in Baltimore City, Brown arrived yesterday in Cavanaugh's courtroom some 20 hours after prosecutors had hoped to put him on the stand. The judge -- who joked Tuesday that the media-friendly lawyer might arrive more quickly if television news trucks were parked outside -- did not hide his displeasure yesterday at Brown's late arrival.

Once on the stand, Brown's testimony offered a rare glimpse into the defense strategy behind a capital case.

Brown, who took over Abeokuto's case shortly before trial, testified that he chose to have his client tried and then sentenced by Judge Thomas J. Bollinger, rather than a jury, because Bollinger's chambers were next to those of another judge who had recently "denounced the death penalty."

Baltimore County Circuit Judge Dana M. Levitz decided twice in 2003 to sentence convicted killers to life in prison rather than impose death sentences, bemoaning the "unending" appeals process in Maryland's capital punishment system and the toll that the delays take on victims' families.

During cross-examination by Harford County Assistant Public Defender Amanda Bull, Brown acknowledged that he did not object to the court-ordered psychiatric evaluation of Abeokuto or seek to limit at sentencing the testimony of the doctor who completed it, Dr. Gregory Fey.

"One of the things that was foremost in my mind was playing to the audience," Brown explained. "I had a judge, one person ... who I felt comfortable with making the decision in this case, and I didn't want to seem recalcitrant or antagonizing. In other words, go along to get along."

Asked whether he was aware that Fey's report "contained negative opinions about your client," Brown responded, "If it did, it did. But that was like throwing water on the wet man."

Bollinger had already sat through the testimony of psychiatrists who evaluated Abeokuto's competency to stand trial and reviewed those doctors' reports, which included, Brown said, information about the defendant eating his own feces.

In addition, the judge had seen the crime scene photos and heard several days of trial testimony linking Abeokuto to the death of Marciana, whose throat was slit so deeply that she was nearly decapitated. The girl's frozen and partially snow-covered body was found in the woods near Joppatowne in Harford County on Dec. 12, 2002, nine days after she disappeared.

"Quite frankly, Dr. Fey, whatever he had to say, if it was not very complimentary, paled in comparison to everything that had gone on before that," Brown said.

Fey testified at that sentencing hearing that Abeokuto said "a voice" told him to kill Marciana and provided four reasons to do so. But Fey also told the judge presiding over that hearing that the Baltimore man's claims of mental illness appeared to be exaggerated.

jennifer.mcmenamin @baltsun.com

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