Top Md. court throws out appeal by prisoner facing death penalty

Judges clear path for trial in 2006 homicide

April 12, 2011|By Andrea F. Siegel, The Baltimore Sun

Less than a week after getting its first look at Maryland's new death penalty law, the state's highest court threw out a pretrial appeal Tuesday by a prisoner who is charged with murdering a correctional officer.

The order came four days after courtroom arguments in which an assistant attorney general asked the Court of Appeals to dismiss the bid by prisoner Lee Edward Stephens in the fatal stabbing of David McGuinn, a 42-year-old correctional officer.

In the ruling, the judges appear to agree with Assistant Attorney General James E. Williams, who argued that Stephens' appeal was premature. Stephens has not yet been tried in McGuinn's July 2006 homicide at the Maryland House of Correction, where Stephens, 31, and his co-defendant were then serving life sentences.

"Our argument was this was not allowed by law — it is not a final judgment," said Raquel Guillory, spokeswoman for the Attorney General's Office.

An Anne Arundel County judge had refused Stephens' request for a hearing on whether prosecutors have evidence that could meet the stringent restrictions that legislators enacted in 2009 in the death penalty law.

The changes limit prosecutors' authority to seek execution for first-degree murder convictions to killings in which there is DNA or other biological evidence, a videotaped confession or a video recording of the crime.

But, Williams had argued, they say nothing about a judge's deciding before the trial whether the evidence qualifies for a death penalty case. With rare exceptions, appeals do not start until after a verdict.

"The state made a large point that of the fact that this was not an appealable order," said H. Stephen Hut Jr., whose Washington law firm of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr has been helping Stephens' attorneys. "It was not an insignificant part of the argument last Friday. … It is a disappointment, but is not a shock at all."

The ruling also lifted the Court of Appeals' stay on plans for a 10-week trial for Stephens. New trial dates will have to be selected.

Co-defendant Lamar Cornelius Harris, 41, has a pretrial appeal pending.

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

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