Maryland's top court to take look at state's new death penalty law

Pretrial appeal brought by prisoner charged with 2006 killing of correctional officer

April 08, 2011|By Andrea F. Siegel, The Baltimore Sun

Maryland's highest court is scheduled to take its first look at the state's new death penalty law Friday, when lawyers for a prisoner accused of murdering a correctional officer argue that prosecutors should have to convince a judge that they have the evidence now required for a capital case.

The controversial 2009 changes to the death penalty law restrict prosecutors' authority to seek execution for first-degree murder convictions only in crimes in which there is DNA or other biological evidence, a videotaped confession or a video recording of the crime.

Lawyers for Lee Edward Stephens, 31, said Anne Arundel County prosecutors indicated that biological or DNA evidence ties Stephens to the July 2006 fatal stabbing of David McGuinn.

McGuinn was a 42-year-old correctional officer at the Maryland House of Correction, where Stephens and co-defendant Lamar Cornelius Harris, 41, were then serving life sentences. The prison has since been closed.

Stephens' lawyers asked Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Judge Paul A. Hackner to hold a hearing to determine if prosecutors have the evidence that could tie Stephens to McGuinn's killing — enough evidence to go forward with what is expected to be a 10-week capital murder trial. Hackner agreed with prosecutors who opposed the hearing. Stephens appealed.

Arguments Friday at the Court of Appeals are expected to last at least an hour. There is no deadline for that court to rule.

Stephens' attorneys said that 40 other men, not charged, were at the bloody crime scene, and five would testify that they had the victim's blood on them or in their cells or had stepped in it. The attorneys are arguing that because it's possible for there to be a case in which there is relevant DNA evidence, but that evidence does not link a defendant to murder, a pretrial ruling on whether Stephens is eligible for a death sentence is needed.

More than four years after McGuinn was killed, Harris has not been tried either. A psychiatrist has said he is mentally unfit to stand trial, but the court hearing to assess that is tied up in a pretrial appeal pending at the Court of Appeals as well. At issue is what evidence could be used in a hearing where Hackner would rule on whether Harris is competent for trial.

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

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