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Maryland's top court hears death-row murderer's latest challenge

Laws and LegislationJustice SystemHomicide

In 2007, Anthony Grandison, a onetime reputed Baltimore drug lord and convicted murderer who has spent most of the past 27 years on death row, fired the lawyers the public defender's office hired to represent him in his latest efforts to win a new trial or new sentence.

He did it after he learned that the public defender's office wouldn't replace those attorneys — one of whom told the judge that Grandison had fired about 11 lawyers since 1983, when he was charged with capital murder of a would-be witness against him and the man's sister-in-law at a Baltimore County motel.

Grandison told the judge, according to legal briefs, that he had a right to have new lawyers appointed. The judge found no takers for Grandison in the legal community and refused to appoint public defenders for him. Grandison represented himself and lost.

Thursday, the state's top court takes up Grandison's claim that it was wrong for the judge not to have appointed lawyers for him, as well as his request for a new hearing — with lawyers representing him in the latest efforts to reopen his case.

The case poses the question of how far the state should go to ensure that a defendant fighting for his life has lawyers once the case has gone beyond the basic appeals.

"You can't jerk the system around," said former federal prosecutor Abraham Dash, a law professor at the University of Maryland. But he added: "You are going to give him a lot more leeway because it is a death case."

Baltimore lawyer Andrew D. Levy, who also teaches at the University of Maryland School of Law, said, "When you get to a death case, many courts, most judges, believe that you need to bend over backward to make sure that we get it right."

That does not mean that a defendant isn't trying to manipulate the system, experts said.

"We don't execute people because they are jerks," Levy said. "We are supposed to execute them because they are the worst of the worst."

The issue of providing lawyers is complicated in death-penalty cases, where specialized organizations or big law firms sometimes pitch in, costs run well into the six figures and the stakes are high. Cases in Maryland last for decades.

Maryland law, according to briefs by the attorney general, provides for a lawyer through trial, appeal and another review of the case. Beyond that — like this challenge — it's up to a judge or public defenders to decide, the briefs say.

"There is no constitutional right to appointed counsel in post-conviction proceedings," said Richmond attorney Steven D. Benjamin, president-elect of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

The state attorney general's office says Grandison — no stranger to acting as his own lawyer — isn't entitled to an attorney and created his own mess by firing the lawyers provided. In legal briefs, the attorney general's office called the repeated firing and replacing of attorneys "untenable." Besides, half of Grandison's claims should be dismissed because of procedural errors he made, according to the briefs.

But now he has lawyers — the Court of Appeals asked the Office of the Public Defender to take the case before it.

Paul B. DeWolfe, named chief public defender after his predecessor was fired in 2009, said in an affidavit that he would have appointed new lawyers for Grandison if Somerset County Circuit Judge Daniel M. Long had asked "because this is a capital case." His office will represent Grandison if there is a rehearing.

Grandison, 61, faces two death sentences for two 1983 contract killings at the Warren House motel in Pikesville. Killed were Scott Piechowicz, who was to have testified against him in a federal drug trial, and Susan Kennedy, Piechowicz's wife's sister. Kennedy was mistaken for her sister, Cheryl Piechowicz, who also was to have been a witness against Grandison. The man he is convicted of paying $9,000 to carry out the hit, Vernon Lee Evans Jr., is among the five men with him on Maryland's death row.

Grandison was sentenced to death in 1984 and again in 1994, with challenges coming ever since. Grandison's previous Court of Appeals cases are identified by numbers, making this Grandison VI.

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

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