Man draws life in killing

Woodlawn resident pleads guilty in neighbor's death

July 03, 2008|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,Sun reporter

A 38-year-old Woodlawn man pleaded guilty yesterday in Baltimore County Circuit Court to killing his next-door neighbor during a botched burglary, an admission that spares him a possible death sentence.

Prosecutors were prepared to seek the death penalty for Vaughn L. Garris, who was sentenced instead by Judge Robert E. Cahill Jr. to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Garris gained entry to his neighbor's home through a crawl space between their townhouses, authorities said.

Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger said prosecutors decided to accept the plea rather than subject the victim's family to a lengthy death-penalty process had Garris been convicted by a jury of first-degree murder.

"The certainty of knowing he would not get out again was most important to the family," Shellenberger said.

Lawyers for Garris declined to comment after yesterday's hearing.

Police say a trail of blood in a crawl space between the townhouse of Garris and the home of Chontae Waters, 31, linked the man to the March 2007 killing. The neighbors lived on Heatherton Court in Woodlawn.

Waters' roommate found her body in a second-floor bedroom of the home, where the two women had lived for about two weeks. The panel to the attic in Waters' ceiling was open, and trails of blood led to the ceiling panel in Garris' home, according to police.

Garris apologized in court yesterday to Waters' family, blaming a "desperate situation" for the crime. He didn't elaborate.

The apology did little to satisfy the victim's father, who said he was pleased with the court's decision but remained angry at the defendant.

"He was a madman, a desperate man who had no conscience at the time," said Olandas Gamble, who stood alongside two of the victim's brothers outside the courtroom after the sentencing. "In fact, it's not even fair to call him a man. Had he been a man, he wouldn't have killed her, and just accepted his two to five years for burglary. That's what a man would have done."

Waters' stepfather, James Waters, who raised the victim, read an impact statement in court, telling the judge there was no way he could express the pain Garris had put the family through.

Police arrested Garris two days after the attack. Garris told police he broke into Waters' home to burglarize it, according to charging documents. When Waters interrupted the burglary, Garris stabbed her several times with a knife he used to pry open the attic door, police said.

In May, a video of his interrogation by police was shown in court during a pretrial hearing. After confessing to the killing and making a subsequent phone call, Garris told a homicide detective that he admitted to the stabbing only to be allowed to make the calls that the officer said he could make if he told the truth about what happened.

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