Judge dismisses entire jury pool

Morris' escape attempt may also force Howard County judge to recuse himself

June 02, 2007|By John-John Williams IV | John-John Williams IV,Sun reporter

The day after a man with a history of escape attempts tried to flee a courtroom as his murder trial was getting under way, a Howard County Circuit Court judge dismissed the entire jury pool and asked the lawyers whether he should recuse himself from the case.

Brandon T. Morris, 21, tried to escape from Judge Dennis M. Sweeney's courtroom during jury selection Thursday. Two sheriff's deputies and two potential jurors received minor injuries during the ruckus, which resulted in Morris being wrestled to the floor by security officers. Morris is accused of killing a correctional officer as he fled from a Hagerstown hospital last year.

"Before we continue, we need to make sure we have taken into account the events of [Thursday]," Sweeney said yesterday in a courtroom that included Morris and about a dozen sheriff's deputies and plainclothes correctional officers. "We need to decide how we run the trial. ... We'd be best served [by] going back to the jury selection process."

Unlike on Thursday, Morris was shackled and handcuffed in the Ellicott City courtroom yesterday.

Sweeney decided to dismiss the 140 potential jurors in part because of the publicity about Morris' attempted escape.

"All the reports said two jurors were injured," Sweeney said. "What concerns me is the message that is out there is that folks who came here were injured. That's a message that is hard to get around. Potentially it is a bad situation to bring people in."

A trial date will be set after he decides whether to withdraw from the case, Sweeney said.

Whether Morris should be placed in restraints for the trial also must be determined, he said. State courts have ruled that defendants generally have a right to appear before a jury without excessive restraints.

Sweeney requested that prosecution and defense lawyers file opinions about his possible recusal. He indicated that he would prefer to continue presiding at the trial when it resumes, saying, "My tendency is, if I start something I want to finish it."

He also said, "Whether this judge can and should continue in this case is an issue that needs some analysis."

Morris, a state prison inmate from Baltimore, is accused of killing correctional officer Jeffery A. Wroten, 44, at a Hagerstown hospital, kidnapping a hospital visitor and carjacking a taxi in an escape attempt in January last year.

Morris, who had a self-inflicted wound, had been taken to the hospital from nearby Roxbury Correctional Institution, where he was serving a sentence for armed robbery and assault.

The case was moved from Washington County to Howard County because of the substantial publicity it received in the Hagerstown area.

Washington County Deputy State's Attorney Joseph S. Michael said that delaying the court proceedings would reward Morris. He said he wanted to make sure that there were measures in place that would preclude Morris from attempting similar disturbances.

"The trial is delayed solely because Mr. Morris behaved in a fashion that is outrageous and dangerous to the community," Michael said.

Sweeney ruled earlier that prosecutors could seek the death penalty against Morris.

Dressed in a powder-blue corrections department shirt, royal blue warm-up pants, and new-looking white and black sneakers, Morris slouched back in his seat, his arms crossed, for most of the hour-long proceedings yesterday.

Arcangelo M. Tuminelli, Morris' lead attorney, said afterward that he did not know why his client had tried to flee the previous day.

"We haven't talked to him since the incident," said Tuminelli, who was not in the courtroom Thursday when the escape attempt occurred.

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

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