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Hearings will allow closer look into death penalty cases

Attorneys for inmate accused of killing corrections officer want to see prosecutors' case

By Andrea F. Siegel, The Baltimore Sun

9:51 PM EDT, August 21, 2011

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Attorneys for an inmate accused of killing a corrections officer five years ago want prosecutors to reveal their evidence to determine whether it satisfies the state's death penalty statute.

The hearing, requested by lawyers for Lee Edward Stephens, is now allowed under a rule enacted by the state's highest court in June. In addition to giving opposing attorneys a peek into the other side's case, the hearings would allow judges to weed out death penalty prosecutions that don't satisfy the new law, one expert said.

Stephens' attorneys are hoping that as a result of the hearing, a judge will take the death penalty off the table for their client.

"If we are right, and I believe we are, Mr. Stephens will not have a death penalty trial," said Gary E. Proctor, one of Stephens' attorneys.

Stephens and another inmate, Lamarr C. Harris, are accused of the fatal stabbing in 2006 of corrections officer David McGuinn, 42, in the now-closed Maryland House of Correction, where Stephens and Harris were serving life sentences.

Five years after the killing, the co-defendants have not been tried, in part because of changes to the state's death penalty law.

The changes, which restrict the cases in which prosecutors can seek capital punishment, reserve the death penalty for first-degree murder 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.

Prosecutors have said in earlier court filings that they will use DNA to tie Stephens to the crime.

Anne Arundel County prosecutors declined to comment on the challenge to their evidence.

"We are still reviewing those motions and will be preparing for those motions," said Kristin Fleckenstein, a spokeswoman for the state's attorney's office.

Stephens' attorneys asked for such a hearing two years ago, but were turned down by Judge Paul A. Hackner. But the Court of Appeals enacted a rule in June – two months after Stephens' appeal was dismissed – to allow defense lawyers to challenge whether prosecutors' evidence measures up to the requirements of the death penalty law. One judge called the hearings "a preview of coming attractions" in capital cases.

The new rule was designed to make it clear that judges have the authority to decide whether there appears to be evidence for a death penalty case if defense lawyers challenge that assertion.

While the rule was being crafted, a similar proceeding was held for Thomas Leggs Jr., who was accused of sexually assaulting and murdering a child on the Eastern Shore. A judge allowed his death penalty case to continue after prosecutors explained the evidence they intended to use at a trial. However, in Leggs' case, no trial was held. In exchange for prosecutors' agreeing to not seek the death penalty, Leggs pleaded guilty in March and was sentenced to life without parole.

In Stephens' case, getting the death penalty tossed out would be a major defense win, said lawyer Andrew Levy, who teaches at the University of Maryland law school. But the hearing could help Stephens' lawyers if they lose, too: "Any time you get an opportunity to force the prosecution to show you some of their hand, it's a no-brainer, you take it."

Stephens' trial, predicted to last seven weeks, is scheduled to begin in January.

In 2006, investigators wrote in charging documents that Harris was seen stabbing McGuinn and that a bloody T-shirt was found under Stephens' bed.

But Stephens' lawyers have countered that McGuinn's blood on their client's clothing and other items in his cell does not prove that he had a role in the slaying because blood was "everywhere."

"His link to the crime scene, also his home, is not, however, a link to the act of murder," they wrote to the judge in their request for the hearing.

They have long claimed that the tier was so blood-covered that at least one inmate slipped and fell in it and that others had blood on their cells or curtains.

Stephens' lawyers also claim that the death penalty unnecessarily allows execution in violation of the state Constitution. That argument did not gain traction in the Leggs case.

Hackner, the judge, is scheduled to hear Stephens' pretrial motions in September but it's not clear if he will weigh the death penalty evidence at that time.

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com