The trial of a prisoner charged with killing a state correctional officer will remain a death-penalty case, an Anne Arundel County judge ruled Wednesday, after hearing that the victim's DNA was found on the prisoner's clothing and that witnesses linked him to the attack.
Lawyers for Lee Edward Stephens, 32, said they were not surprised that Judge Paul A. Hackner refused to eliminate the possibility of capital punishment. Stephens and another prisoner, Lamarr C. Harris, 41, are charged in the 2006 stabbing of Cpl. David McGuinn at the now-closed House of Correction in Jessup.
Defense lawyers unsuccessfully sought to question five state police and correctional officers expected to be prosecution witnesses at Stephens' trial, in an effort to convince Hackner that DNA evidence doesn't meet the requirements of Maryland's death-penalty law.
Changes made to the law in 2009 reserve capital punishment for killings in which there is a videotaped confession, a video recording of the crime, or DNA or other biological evidence linking the defendant to the crime.
Hackner rejected the defense's request for what would have been a mini-trial. Instead, prosecutors summarized key elements of their case: McGuinn's blood was on a shirt and boots in Stephens' cell, on his boxer shorts, and on a trash bag in his cell.
"This does not link the defendant to the act of murder. It links the defendant to the crime scene," Michael E. Lawlor, one of Stephens' attorneys, argued. He said that in the chaos after the stabbing, prisoners were pulled from their cells, slipping — one supposedly fell — in McGuinn's blood.
But Assistant State's Attorney Sandra F. Howell said prosecutors also have two witnesses who "can identify Mr. Stephens as one of the individuals who took part in the stabbing death of Corporal McGuinn," and another who saw Stephens and Harris on the cell tier at the time of the stabbing.
Hackner said a jury will decide whether the DNA is enough of a link for a murder conviction and death sentence.
Stephens' trial is scheduled to start in January and is expected to last seven weeks. It's unclear when or if Harris will be tried. At least three psychiatrists have said he is not mentally competent to stand trial, but Hackner said he expects to order a new evaluation.
The hearing came a day after Maryland's top court rebuffed another attack on the death penalty. The Court of Appeals upheld, on a 4-3 vote, the constitutionality of the process that jurors use to weigh circumstances of a crime when deciding whether to impose the death penalty. Jody Lee Miles, who was sentenced to death for a 1997 robbery and murder in Salisbury, had claimed the standard was unconstitutional.