Four men convicted of murders that occurred in Harford County and a fifth convicted of first-degree rape, all more than 30 years ago, are seeking to have their cases retried as a result of a ruling last year by the state's highest court that jurors may have been given improper instructions by judges.

Included in the group, according to the Harford County State's Attorney's Office, are Peter Sutro Waine, convicted of the 1977 murder of an Abingdon couple, and John Henry Smith, convicted of setting a fire at Gene's Bar near Forest Hill in 1972 that killed two young women sleeping on the second floor of the building. At the time, the two cases were among the most sensational of their decade.

The other three petitioners are James Jeffrey Vernon, convicted of first-degree rape in 1978; Bryan Keith Quickly, convicted of first-degree murder in 1980; and Rodney Lee Stevenson, convicted of first-degree murder in 1977.

All five men, whose ages range between 50 and 72, are serving life or multiple life sentences. They have sought what are known as post-conviction hearings, citing the Maryland Court of Appeals ruling last year in the case of Merle Unger, who was convicted of killing an off-duty Hagerstown police officer in 1977.

Unger's lawyers argued that standard instructions given by judges prior to 1980 left jurors a choice of throwing out the concept of reasonable doubt in determining whether to convict. Unger was retried and convicted in June, according to court records, but the Court of Appeals ruling that led to his new trial unleashed a wave of similar petitions around the state.

Harford County State's Attorney Joseph Cassilly said Thursday he is using every legal means at his disposal to keep all five of the Harford petitioners in jail but admits the effort is compromised by the age of the cases, the problem of tracking down witnesses — some of whom are in other states or have died — and the lack of physical evidence that in some cases is no longer in storage.

Two retrials granted, appealed

Judges have already granted new trials in two of the Harford cases, Waine's and Stevenson's, though Cassilly has appeals of those decisions pending. Quickley's petition for a new trial was heard in Harford Circuit Court in Bel Air on Thursday before retired Circuit Judge Emory Plitt, who did not issue an immediate ruling, according to Harford Deputy State's Attorney Diane Adkins Tobin.

"This issue came up a couple of years ago, and when the [Court of Appeals] ruled the way they did, I held a press conference and warned they would be putting murderers and rapists back on the street," Cassilly said in a phone interview from San Diego, where he is attending the summer conference of the National District's Attorneys Association. Cassilly noted that the court later reversed itself on the same issue and then reserved itself again with the Unger decision.

"This has been bouncing around for years and it shows the absolute goofiness of the Court of Appeals," said Cassilly, who has been a prosecutor for nearly four decades and is the longest serving state's attorney in Maryland. Some of the Harford cases he may have to retry are for crimes that happened when he was in high school, the military, college or law school. In one case, the original opposing lawyers both became judges, and one has since retired.

"We get these post conviction appeals and the judges aren't even looking at the strength of evidence," Cassilly continued. "It's not even a question of innocent people in jail. Regardless of the evidence, what they are saying is did someone forget to dot an 'I' or cross a 'T.'

Cassilly said he disagrees with recent actions by the Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office that released 13 convicted murderers and one convicted rapist rather than retry them, concluding none posed a threat to public safety, as reported Thursday by The Baltimore Sun.

Like Harford, other counties in the region say they will contest the petitions for new trials, many which are pending, and will consider retrying the cases if the petitions are granted, The Sun reported. Seven more Baltimore inmates are expected to be released next month, and all the released inmates are placed under supervised probation, according to The Sun article, meaning they could go back to prison for any violations.

In some of the Harford cases, however, Cassilly cautioned, he may be forced to capitulate.

"It may come to that," he said. "I don't know what I'm going to do when push comes to shove. If I don't have any evidence or any witnesses and even if I have the transcript, I can't hold up the evidence and show it to the jury."

Long an issue in Waine case

Waine was convicted by a jury of bludgeoning to death Merilyn Smith and Lyle Ager, whose decomposing bodies were found in their home in April 1975, a month after Waine was arrested in Arizona driving a vehicle belonging to Mr. Smith, according to federal court records in a previous unsuccessful attempt by Waine to raise the "reasonable doubt" issue of the judge's instructions to the jury. Plitt granted him a new trial last fall, but Cassilly appealed, and the Court of Special Appeals has not ruled on it yet.

Waine's lawyer, Howard L. Cardin of Baltimore, said Thursday he believes the Court of Appeals "wording is so clear in Unger" that appeals of decisions granting new trials amount to "delaying tactics" on the part of prosecutors.

But Cardin added: "He [Cassilly] has the right to file an application for leave to appeal, and so the case is still pending." Waine is incarcerated at the Western Correctional Institution in Cumberland, according to the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Corrections' online inmate database.

Vernon, 55, who was convicted of daytime housebreaking and a weapons charge, in addition to first-degree rape, had a post-conviction hearing before Harford Circuit Judge Angela Eaves in March.