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No death penalty for man convicted of killing prison officer

Members of an Anne Arundel County jury were certain that Lee Edward Stephens was guilty of murder, but prosecutors could not convince them that the inmate — already serving a life sentence when he killed a correctional officer in 2006 — should be put to death.

The jury decided Wednesday that Stephens will get another life sentence, this time without possibility of parole, for fatally stabbing Cpl. David McGuinn as he made his rounds at the now-closed House of Correction in Jessup.

Death penalty opponents said the outcome of the seven-week trial reflects public sentiment about executions. Supporters of capital punishment said they were pleased that the state can put the option on the table. McGuinn's family was satisfied that his killer would never be set free.

Crystal D'Amore, McGuinn's sister, said she respects the jury's verdict as she is sure he would have.

"I feel like either way, [Stephens] would sit in jail," said Shayna McGuinn, the officer's daughter. The positive aspect, she said, is that he can "sit there and think about it."

That has long been a complaint about the death penalty, as inmates spend decades on death row while cases work their way through a complex system of appeals, hearings and possible retrials.

Executions in Maryland have been on hold for six years, amid wrangling over state regulations on the procedure, repeal attempts and a measure making it harder for prosecutors to seek capital punishment. Five men are on death row.

Hearings on death penalty repeal are scheduled this month in House and Senate committees. But the General Assembly is expected to spend the rest of the session on pressing financial issues, making prospects for legislation on capital punishment unclear.

State Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat who sits on the committee considering repeal, said the verdict reinforces his position that capital punishment should be retained.

"He virtually got no additional sentence then, because you can only have one life," Stone said.

Prosecutors had argued that Stevens deserved the death penalty because he is a menace, even in prison. He was serving a sentence of life plus 15 years for a 1997 murder when McGuinn was killed.

But death penalty opponents said jurors' refusal to sign off on a death sentence shows ambivalence on executions.

"People recognize that the death penalty is not a deterrent to committing crime," said Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat who is one of the Assembly's leading advocates for repeal. "It is just an expensive way to exact retribution."

Stephens' was the second trial under a new, more restrictive death penalty law; neither jury produced a death sentence. A Baltimore County murder-for-hire case last year resulted in a sentence of life with the possibility of parole.

A state law passed in 2009 allows prosecutors to seek capital punishment only when there is biological or DNA evidence linking the defendant to the crime, a videotaped confession, or a video recording linking the defendant to the crime.

DNA and biological evidence — blood — tied Stephens to the fatal stabbing, but jurors decided to spare his life. They found that Stephens had grown up in a "culture of poverty, drugs, chaos and violence," and called him a "product of a broken system throughout his life."

Defense attorney Michael E. Lawlor squeezed Stephens' shoulder as the sentence was read. Stephens showed no emotion as he turned and was led from the courtroom, but Lawlor said he was relieved.

"I'm just glad they didn't kill him," his sister, Charnita Stephens, said through tears.

Some jurors said the suffering that Stephens' family would endure if he were executed was a factor in their decision not to give him the death penalty. Jurors declined to speak to reporters Wednesday but were required to give a detailed explanation of their reasoning on a verdict form read in court.

Gary E. Proctor, another of Stephens' lawyers, said his client would have been eligible for parole consideration "any day now" under his first life sentence. Although parole of a "lifer" is rare, some prisoners still hold out hope.

"The hope is gone now," Proctor said.

Prosecutors restricted their remarks because the case of Stephens' co-defendant has yet to be heard. Whether the second prisoner charged in the July 25, 2006, incident will be tried is uncertain. Lamar (also spelled Lamarr) Cornelius "Junebug" Harris, 41, faces a hearing in April to decide whether he is mentally competent to stand trial.

"We consider today to be a step forward toward getting justice for Corporal McGuinn," prosecutor Sandra F. Howell said after leaving the courtroom.

Stephens' defense team had described him as having endured an abusive and impoverished childhood that included sexual abuse while in a juvenile facility and continued violence in prison. His family lived in Salisbury, his mentally disabled mother working several low-level jobs and leaving her eldest child, Charnita, in charge.

Much of that resonated with jurors, who noted Stephens' low IQ, learning disability and exposure to "excessive violence" in state facilities. Some were also persuaded by factors that included sexual abuse, racism, state programs that exacerbated his problems, and a childhood of committing crimes to support his family.

Jurors also blamed the facility. Trial testimony had indicated that the House of Correction's antiquated cell door locks were easily jimmied and other security measures did not appear to be working, and jurors also heard about prison violence.

The facility had developed a reputation as an institution where violence by prisoners was out of control and corruption rampant. During the summer that McGuinn was killed, at least three prisoners died in inmate-on-inmate attacks. Searches in the aftermath of McGuinn's death turned up more than 100 weapons — but not the one used in the murder.

In early March 2007, another correctional officer was stabbed but survived. Two years later, the prison was emptied and shut down by the new administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley. State officials said the structure, which dated to 1879, could not be made safe.

Patrick Moran, head of AFSCME Maryland, the collective bargaining unit for most state correctional officers, said some of his members think the death penalty would have been appropriate in Stephens' case because he had showed that he is a danger to prison staff, as prosecutors had contended.

"Well he is, because he murdered one of them. I think there are some that are incredibly disappointed" that the death sentence was not imposed, Moran said.

But he said the sentence handed down means that Stephens will not leave prison and will be placed in a highly secure facility with little contact with others.

Officials with the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services declined to comment, saying that their thoughts remain with McGuinn's family. Stephens had recently been incarcerated at North Branch, a new maximum-security facility in Western Maryland. There was no word Wednesday on where Stephens might be held next.

An appeal by Stephens is expected — but if the first-degree murder conviction were overturned, the death penalty would be off the table. The jury found him not guilty of conspiracy.

Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

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