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Jury to consider death sentence for prisoner convicted of murdering correctional officer

An Anne Arundel County jury will consider the death sentence for a prisoner convicted of murdering a correctional officer.

Monday's decision marks the first time a Maryland jury has determined that DNA directly linked a killer to a murder and makes him a candidate for execution under the state's new capital punishment law.

The decision, which came after four hours of deliberation, signals that jurors will return Wednesday to begin deciding whether Lee Edward Stephens, 32, should be executed for the fatal stabbing of Cpl. David McGuinn, 42, at the now-closed Maryland House of Correction. Stephens decided earlier Monday that he wanted his fate to be decided by the jury and not the judge in the case.

Jurors also could choose a sentence of life in prison without parole or life with the possibility of parole for a man now serving a sentence of life plus additional years for a 1997 murder.

The same jury took nearly six days last week to convict Stephens of first-degree murder and find him not guilty of conspiring with another prisoner to commit it.

McGuinn's and Stephens' families, at opposite sides of the courtroom, displayed no emotion as the jury announced its decision.

In 2009, the General Assembly reserved capital punishment for first-degree murders in which there is DNA or other biological evidence that links the defendant to the murder, a videotaped confession or a video recording of the crime.

The law is unique in the country, and it has yet to be scrutinized by the state's highest court — including what the word "links" means.

The nine-woman, three-man jury found that prosecutors proved that DNA and other biological evidence linked Stephens and the July 25, 2006, slaying.

Prosecutor David P. Ash told jurors they had heard testimony and seen evidence that prosecutors had a "stronger than strong link" between Stephens and McGuinn's blood and DNA. McGuinn's blood was on Stephens' clothing.

But defense lawyer Gary E. Proctor countered that prosecutors couldn't make the connection. "DNA put him in the vicinity" of the crime, he said, and they did not test all of the blood to see whose it was.

Jurors in a Baltimore County murder-for-hire trial last year dealt with similar issues when prosecutors used Walter P. Bishop Jr.'s confession to tie him to a slaying under the new law. The jury sentenced Bishop to life.

The step of determining whether prosecutors proved the "link" adds a new wrinkle to the already complex sentencing procedure in place when prosecutors are seeking a death sentence.

Jurors also found that Stephens wielded a knife and that he had a "principal" role in the killing. But that decision fell under an older, established part of the death-penalty law that is still a key requirement. No murder weapon was found.

A second prisoner also is charged in McGuinn's slaying, and a hearing is scheduled for April to determine whether he is mentally competent to stand trial.

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

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