Guard's death called a `hit' for corrupt officers

Court papers cite account by witness to state police

Sun exclusive

February 29, 2008|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,Sun reporter

A witness told state police investigating the stabbing death of a corrections officer at a Jessup prison that corrupt guards involved in contraband smuggling "ordered the hit" on Officer David McGuinn, according to papers filed in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court.

The allegation - the first public suggestion that McGuinn might have been set up by other officers - is contained in a motion filed by defense attorneys for Lamarr Harris, one of two inmates charged with killing McGuinn on July 25, 2006.

The legal motion to produce evidence does not say whether the unidentified witness was a corrections officer, an inmate or someone else. State police homicide investigators interviewed the witness in the weeks after McGuinn was killed.

His death and the chaotic circumstances at the House of Correction - where dozens of weapons, cell phones and other prohibited items were seized in the aftermath of the stabbing - were factors in the state's closing of the institution last year.

"The witness alleged that the hit on Officer McGuinn was ordered because Officer McGuinn interfered with the conspiracy between officers and inmates to distribute contraband into the House of Correction," the legal filing states.

Defense lawyers signaled in the document that they intend to make the corrupt environment at the prison a centerpiece in their defense of Harris. He and Lee Stephens, the other inmate accused of killing McGuinn, face the death penalty if convicted.

No trial date has been set.

"The information that a correctional officer may have ordered the hit on Officer McGuinn is exculpatory to [Harris] ... and may exculpate either his guilt or mitigate his sentence," Harris' lawyers, William M. Davis, Mary Jo Livingston and Elizabeth W. Palan, said in the legal brief.

The witness provided the information during interviews with state police in August and September 2006. It was later made part of a written report by state police, which defense lawyers obtained through the discovery process.

The motion seeks personnel and disciplinary records of several corrections officers and similar documents.

State prison officials and state police declined to comment on the motion or the allegations by the witness.

"We're not able to discuss any aspects of this," said Greg Shipley, a state police spokesman. "That was a directive from the state's attorney's office. Our concern is that we need to maintain the integrity of the investigation and of the prosecution as this moves to trial."

Davis said the motion "speaks for itself." He declined to identify the witness who was interviewed by state police or the person's connection to the case.

Kristin Riggin, a spokeswoman for the Anne Arundel County state's attorney's office, said: "While I can't comment as to the substance of the motion, I can say the motion is based on supplementing information that was given to the defense by the prosecution."

The status of the state police investigation is unclear. Harris and Stephens were identified as suspects and charged shortly after the killing. There is no indication that investigators are exploring the possible involvement of other suspects.

Nevertheless, rumors have long held that corrupt prison staff might have played a role in setting up McGuinn, a by-the-book officer whose strict enforcement of prison rules earned him the nickname "Homeland Security."

Corrections officials said a day after McGuinn was killed that he had been a subject of inmate death threats. As a result of those threats, they said, he had been assigned work duties that put him in less contact with inmates for a time. He had been reassigned to a more hazardous post inside the prison shortly before his death.

The prison had been on lockdown the weekend before McGuinn was killed because of rumors that inmates planned to attack an officer. Despite this, Mc-Guinn was stationed in a notoriously dangerous area.

There, two inmates allegedly emerged from their cells, trapped him in a dark, narrow passageway and stabbed him with homemade weapons. Prison officials said the inmates bypassed faulty cell door locks to get out of their cells.

In their legal motion, attorneys for Harris argue that McGuinn's death was a result of the state's negligence in allowing corruption to flourish at the House of Correction.

"Evidence of correctional officers supplying and selling for their own profit contraband into and/or within the institution may reasonably provide evidence of a ... mitigating factor, namely that it was this conspiracy to distribute contraband that jeopardized the health and safety of inmates and officers and that the state knew of this illicit conspiracy which ultimately led to the death of Officer McGuinn," the motion states.

It accused state officials of allowing the prison to be "systematically understaffed and deteriorate to the point that it could not safely house or protect maximum-security inmates and staff."

The antiquated prison was closed in March 2007, three months after Gov. Martin O'Malley took office.

The motion to produce evidence was filed by defense lawyers Feb. 21 as they prepared for a hearing Tuesday in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court.

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