Jury selection in the death penalty trial of one of two prisoners charged with murdering a correctional officer more than five years ago will begin Tuesday, in a case that could test the validity of the state's new death penalty law.
The Anne Arundel County Circuit Court has called a pool of 200 potential jurors for the trial of Lee Edward Stephens, accused of fatally stabbing Cpl. David McGuinn. Judge Paul A. Hackner scheduled opening statements for Jan. 9 in the trial, which may last seven weeks.
If Stephens, 32, becomes the first person convicted and sentenced to death under the 2009 changes to state law, the resulting appeal would challenge the measure.
Changes made to the law reserve the death penalty for murders 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. In this case, prosecutors said they have DNA.
Prosecutors maintain that McGuinn's blood was on a shirt and boots in Stephens' cell, on his boxer shorts, as well as on a trash bag in the cell.
The defense, however, has countered that in the chaotic aftermath of the stabbing, prisoners were pulled from their cells and slipped in McGuinn's blood. That would tie not only Stephens, but a number of other prisoners to the crime scene, the defense contends.
If Stephens is convicted and sentenced to death, his case will automatically be appealed, and that's when challenges to the new law would go before the state's highest court. Stephens' defense team has laid the groundwork for that during pretrial hearings before Hackner, who ruled against the defense.
The jury is expected to hear from dozens of witnesses, prisoners among them. At a hearing in the fall, prosecutors said they have two witnesses who can identify Stephens as one of the people who played a role in killing McGuinn and another who saw Stephens and Lamar C. Harris, the other prisoner charged with murdering McGuinn, on the cell tier at the time of the stabbing.
The trial has been delayed several times. "It's time to put everything on and see what happens," said Gary E. Proctor, one of Stephens' lawyers.
Stephens and Harris, both of whom are serving life-plus sentences for murder, are accused in the killing of McGuinn on a narrow catwalk outside prisoners' cells. The homicide was one of the main reasons the Maryland House of Correction, built in the 1800s, was closed. Public safety officials said it appeared that one of the two inmates had a tool used to tamper with the cell door locks.
It is unclear if Harris will face trial. Although psychiatrists previously considered him mentally unfit to stand trial, he is not scheduled for a competency hearing until April.
Sheriff Ronald Bateman said visitors to the courthouse for Stephens' trial may notice more law enforcement there. "We will have increased security," he said.