Death-penalty trial opens in killing of correctional officer

A by-the-book correctional officer was murdered on the job by two prisoners who didn't want to live by the rules, a prosecutor told a jury Wednesday as the death penalty trial of the first of those inmates began in Anne Arundel County.

"To them, Cpl. [David] McGuinn was an obstacle they had to remove, and they did," Assistant State's Attorney Sandra F. Howell said in her opening remarks in the trial of Lee Edward Stephens.

It is the first time in the more than five years since the 42-year-old McGuinn was fatally stabbed at the now-closed maximum-security Maryland House of Correction that prosecutors have publicly offered any motive.

Stephens, 32, is charged with first-degree murder in the fatal stabbing July 25, 2006, of McGuinn, an officer nicknamed "Homeland Security" for his approach to his work. The defense maintains that Stephens did not kill McGuinn, describing a chaotic scene in which the officer's blood wound up in Stephens' cell without his involvement.

The slaying and long-awaited seven-week trial have drawn wide attention. Not only was the fatal attack on a correctional officer a leading reason the state shut down the antiquated prison where it took place, but a conviction with a death sentence would be the first under the 2009 changes to Maryland's death penalty law. Close to 70 people attended opening statements.

With a photo of McGuinn on display, Howell told jurors that they would see a cell door from the House of Correction and a demonstration of how prisoners were able to jam its locks. She said Stephens and Lamarr Cornelius Harris (his name is also spelled "Lamar" in some documents), 41, freed themselves from their cells to "sneak up on Cpl. David McGuinn" and repeatedly stab him as he was doing the 10 p.m. head count on their 49-cell tier.

Howell said McGuinn's blood was in Stephens' and Harris' cells and on their clothing. It was on a trash bag in Stephens' cell and on his boxer shorts, she said.

What jurors won't see is a murder weapon. Although hundreds of homemade and other knives were found after the attack in the long-troubled facility — including one that the defense said was kicked into a utility area and later inexplicably turned up on another prisoner — no weapon was linked to McGuinn's death.

Jurors saw their first photos of the bloody crime scene and hospital room Wednesday. They heard their first testimony about McGuinn's cries for help crackling over prison radios, followed by efforts to save him as blood gushed from his wounds. He died an hour after the attack.

With no other correctional officers on the tier, only other prisoners saw the attack, Howell said. That leaves prosecutors to put prisoners convicted of serious crimes before the jury as witnesses.

Defense attorney Michael E. Lawlor seized on that point in his opening remarks, in which he attempted to plant doubts about both the believability of witnesses and the blood evidence. He contended that the prisoners who are expected to testify for the prosecution are swapping testimony for deals — one a potential move out of the country and the other sentence reduction.

But another witness, Lawlor said, will say only Lamarr Harris stabbed McGuinn. "Defense witnesses … will tell you that the person who attacked Cpl. McGuinn was not Lee Stephens," he said.

The crime scene "looks as though it was painted in blood," Lawlor said, contending that it's no surprise McGuinn's blood was in his client's cell.

Stephens' trial comes under the General Assembly's 2009 curbs on when prosecutors can seek the death penalty. The law reserves capital punishment for murders 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 long said they will use DNA evidence. The defense has countered that McGuinn's blood was on several inmates.

The trial may also provide an inside view of the troubled prison in Jessup, where at least three inmates were killed in 2006.

Less than a year after McGuinn was killed and two weeks after a second correctional officer was stabbed and survived, state prison officials emptied the House of Correction, which opened in 1879. It has been closed since 2007; plans call for razing it.

Stephens, nicknamed "Jabar" and "Shy," is serving life plus 15 years. He was convicted of murder in the April 1997 slaying of a man outside a Salisbury nightclub. He was 17 at the time.

Harris is serving three life sentences plus 64 years. The longest stem from his role in an August 1989 execution-style slaying of two people in a South Baltimore park. He was 18. While in prison, he was convicted of assaulting a correctional officer and a fellow prisoner.

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