Death penalty challenged

Murder-trial defense says prosecutors may not seek execution

May 26, 2007|By Rona Marech | Rona Marech,Sun Reporter

The judge presiding over the murder trial of Brandon T. Morris, charged in the death of a state correctional officer last year, is weighing whether it is unconstitutional for prosecutors to pursue the death penalty given that Maryland does not have an approved execution procedure in place.

At a pre-trial hearing yesterday in Ellicott City, Morris' lawyers argued before Howard County Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney that it is inappropriate to pursue the death penalty because the state's highest court late last year halted executions until lethal injection procedures are redeveloped with the required legislative oversight and public input. Prosecutors from Washington County countered that the Court of Appeals case at issue did not strike down the death penalty.

Morris has been charged with first-degree murder, kidnapping, carjacking and other offenses stemming from the 2006 killing of Jeffery A. Wroten, a correctional officer at the Roxbury Correctional Institution.

"It's unconstitutional to have someone proceed to a death penalty hearing when there's no way to carry it out," Eric A. Reed, a Washington County assistant public defender, said at the hearing. "It's one of the elemental properties of due process that the defendant has the right to know what's the worst that can happen."

The defendant can't make properly informed decisions about his case without a state procedure for execution in place, Reed said. Assistant State's Attorney John B. Dunlap argued that the Court of Appeals was clear in its decision in the case of death row inmate Vernon L. Evans Jr. that the death penalty was still active in Maryland. "Nowhere is the language `illegal' found in that opinion," Dunlap said.

Morris does have the right to know what the maximum punishment for his crime will be, Dunlap said, and the law is clear that it is execution by lethal injection. "All the court said is that the administrative procedures haven't been adopted," he added.

Sweeney said he would study the arguments before rendering a decision on the issue. The motion challenging the state's plans to pursue the death penalty marks at least the second such effort by defense lawyers in the wake of the Court of Appeals case. The capital trial of Kevin G. Johns Jr., a twice-convicted killer accused of strangling a fellow inmate on a prison bus, was postponed indefinitely in April, largely because of the same issue.

Morris, of Baltimore, is accused of shooting Wroten in the face with the officer's gun at Washington County Hospital. Wroten was guarding Morris, who was admitted for treatment for what authorities have said was a self-inflicted injury - a sewing needle jammed into his abdomen.

Jury selection in the case begins June 4.

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