Juror excused from killer's hearing

`I can't do this,' woman says at resentencing session for man convicted of grisly murder

April 27, 2007|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,sun reporter

As prosecutors began laying out their case against a Baltimore man who faces a possible death sentence in the fatal stabbing of his girlfriend's young daughter, Harford County State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly described a killing so grisly that one juror interrupted his opening statement.

"I can't do this," the woman said softly. "I just, I can't do this."

After speaking privately with the juror - identified as Alternate No. 4 - as well as prosecutors and the attorneys defending Jamaal K. Abeokuto in his resentencing hearing, the judge dismissed the woman and asked Cassilly to resume his opening remarks to the remaining jurors.

Abeokuto, 27, was convicted and sentenced to death in 2004 for kidnapping and killing 8-year-old Marciana Ringo. With her pink coat spattered with blood and her throat slashed so severely that she was nearly decapitated, the Northwood Elementary School girl's frozen body was found in the snowy woods near Joppatowne in Harford County on Dec. 12, 2002 - 10 days after she was last seen while getting into a car with Abeokuto.

Maryland's highest court reversed the death sentence last year when four Court of Appeals judges voted, for two different reasons, to grant the convicted killer a new sentencing hearing.

That court proceeding got under way late yesterday afternoon with opening statements to the eight women and four men of the jury and its four alternates.

One alternate juror appeared to begin having trouble just a few minutes into Cassilly's statement.

With a photograph of a smiling Marciana projected onto a screen across the courtroom, the prosecutor began describing the crime.

Abeokuto drove the girl from her mother's apartment in Baltimore to a wooded spot near Joppatowne, Cassilly said, because the man knew it to be "a place where what you do can't be seen and where screams and cries for help would never be heard."

As Cassilly described the multiple stab wounds that Marciana suffered, explaining what each had done to the girl's body, Alternate Juror No. 4 clutched her hand to her mouth and started whimpering. Slowly, she waved her notebook in front of her face - the signal that Baltimore County Circuit Judge Patrick Cavanaugh had established with the jury to let him know if anyone needed a break or was having trouble seeing evidence.

After a few minutes of consultation, the judge dismissed the woman with instructions not to discuss the case with anyone.

Resuming his opening statement, Cassilly told jurors that DNA evidence will link Abeokuto to gloves and jeans - both soaked with Marciana's blood - as well the envelope of as a ransom note sent to the girl's mother. And a psychiatrist who interviewed Abeokuto after his arrest will testify that the man admitted killing the girl, Cassilly told jurors.

Defense attorneys, meanwhile, acknowledged the terrible nature of the killing but asked jurors to withhold judgment until they know more about Abeokuto.

Eric P. Macdonell described his client as a student, a football coach and a religious man who raised his daughter. But Abeokuto also was battling a paranoid personality disorder - "a mental illness that he didn't even know he had," he said.

The disorder causes Abeokuto to suffer pathological jealousy, to believe in "magical thinking" and to seek solutions to problems "that a normal person would never think of," Macdonell said. He added, "Life begins to torture him as things get rough."

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

Abeokuto decided to be sentenced by a jury this time.

Maryland law requires judges or juries at capital sentencings to determine whether a defendant is guilty of first-degree murder and whether an aggravating factor to the crime exists, such as the killing of a police officer or a killing committed during a robbery, kidnapping or rape. They must then decide whether the aggravators outweigh any mitigating factors, such as a defendant's young age or troubled upbringing.

The case was moved to Baltimore County from Harford after Abeokuto requested a change of venue. The hearing is expected to last two weeks.

jennifer.mcmenamin@baltsun.com

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