The Maryland Court of Appeals has reversed the death sentence of Michael Whittlesey, convicted of slaying a Baltimore County teen-ager in 1982 and burying his body in a park where it went undetected for eight years.
Maryland's highest court ruled Thursday that Whittlesey, convicted in the murder of Jamie Griffin, should have been permitted at sentencing to present testimony from a social worker, police detectives and a private investigator to show that he grew up in an abusive family.
"In a capital sentencing proceeding, the United States Constitution requires that the defendant have the opportunity to present all relevant mitigating evidence," Judge Irma S. Raker wrote in a 64-page opinion.
Judge Raker's opinion affirmed Whittlesey's first-degree murder conviction, but vacated the death sentence imposed April 19, 1993.
Norville Griffin, Jamie Griffin's father, declined comment.
Mickey J. Norman, who prosecuted Whittlesey, said the ruling will mean another sentencing hearing and he likely will seek the death penalty again.
Whittlesey, who had moved to Joppatowne in Harford County shortly before the murder, was convicted in 1984 -- about two years after Jamie disappeared -- of robbing the 17-year-old Cockeysville youth of his car and cassette player.
He was not prosecuted for murder until Jamie's remains were found March 24, 1990, in a grave in Gunpowder Falls State Park in eastern Baltimore County.
Jurors convicted Whittlesey of first-degree murder March 29, 1993. He was sentenced to death in a separate proceeding in which he claimed to have been high on LSD at the time of the murder.
Gary E. Bair, chief of the criminal appeals division for the Maryland Attorney General's Office, said he does not expect the Court of Appeals decision to affect the cases of 11 other defendants under death sentences in Maryland.
"The reason the sentence was vacated was very specific to that case," he said.
The appeals court ruled that because Caroline County Circuit Judge J. Owen Wise excluded testimony from defense witnesses that might have helped Whittlesey, the jury decided his fate without a complete picture of his background.
Judge Wise ruled during the sentencing hearing that testimony about Whittlesey's troubled home life was hearsay evidence that was too unreliable to be considered.
But in its 6-1 decision, the appeals court said that hearsay that must be excluded during a trial does not have to be excluded in a death penalty sentencing.
"The trial court must exercise its discretion and shall admit any relevant and reliable mitigating evidence, including hearsay evidence that might not be admissible in the guilt-or-innocence phase," the court said.
Judge Robert M. Bell dissented. In a separate, 32-page opinion, he agreed with the majority on vacating the death sentence, but said he also would reverse Whittlesey's murder conviction on grounds that it violated protection against double jeopardy. He also would have upheld a challenge to the jury selection process.