Prisoner accused of killing officer loses appeal

Hearing on mental competency can take place

April 22, 2010|By Andrea F. Siegel, The Baltimore Sun

One of two men who faces the death penalty if convicted in the fatal stabbing of a state prison correctional officer is a step closer to a ruling on whether he is mentally fit to stand trial.

Maryland's second-highest court dismissed Monday an appeal by Lamar C. Harris that has held up a hearing on his mental condition. In 2008, a state psychiatrist said he was not mentally competent.

Harris, 39, and Lee E. Stephens, 30, are charged with first-degree murder in the July 25, 2006, slaying of correctional officer David McGuinn, 42, at the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup, which has since been closed. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

Whether Harris is fit to stand trial has been an issue since 2008. His co-defendant's case has slowly moved toward a trial scheduled to start in August — four years after the crime. But Harris's case came to a halt over whether he can understand the nature of the case or help his defense, criteria that determine mental competency.

The dispute is over whether mental care records and testimony of the psychiatrist who was treating him have roles in the competency hearing. The defense says no; the prosecution says yes. Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Paul A. Hackner ordered that the records be given to the defense and prosecution for use at a competency hearing that was scheduled for 2008, and the defense appealed.

Anne Arundel County Assistant State's Attorney Sandra Howell, who also wants the psychiatrist to testify at a competency hearing, disagreed, saying the information might be useful for assessing Harris's competency.

The Court of Special Appeals ruled on procedural grounds, saying Harris cannot appeal before the trial because the information may be part of what is provided to lawyers preparing for a trial. The defense, however, sees an appeal after the trial as too late. Information from the files and the psychiatrist might be revealed during a competency hearing or during a trial that will decide if Harris is guilty, and the doctor-patient privilege already would have been compromised.

"The determination of whether someone is competent to stand trial is separate from whether the person is guilty of the charges. To suggest that the two are related, in our opinion is flawed rationale," said William Davis, Anne Arundel County public defender who is heading the defense team. The office will consider whether to ask the state's highest court to hear an appeal.

People found incompetent for trial are hospitalized for treatment and periodically re-evaluated for a new decision on whether they are fit to be tried.

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