Attempts to execute murderer abandoned State wants to spare witness, won't seek death sentence again


Reluctant to make a key witness relive a nightmarish crime, Baltimore County prosecutors have dropped their attempt to restore the death sentence against Donald Thomas-bey who had been on Maryland's death row longer than any other inmate.

Thomas-bey, convicted in 1981 for two slayings and a rape in Arbutus, won a reprieve from the death penalty because a federal judge ruled in 1994 that his lawyer had been ineffective. A new sentencing hearing has been tentatively scheduled for April 12.

Assistant State's Attorney James O'C. Gentry Jr. plans to seek a third consecutive life sentence for Thomas-bey, 37, who was convicted of the stabbings of former state Trooper Donald Spurling and his wife, Sarah, and the rape and robbery of their boarder.

Mr. Gentry said a new death-penalty hearing would amount to a complete retrial of the case. His key witness -- the boarder -- is now a doctor living in another state, he said, and she does not want to talk about the 15-year-old trauma that gave her nightmares for years.

The Spurlings' relatives also were consulted, he said.

"We were not opposed to the dropping of the death penalty," said ing's father, Charles A. Wobbeking Sr., "because we were told that the boarder would have to come back to town and relive the horrors of that night, and we didn't think it would be fair to her. I put myself in the place of her father and I would not want her to come back."

He said he hoped a third consecutive life sentence would keep Thomas-bey locked up forever.

Thomas-bey received the death penalty for killing Mrs. Spurling, and two consecutive life sentences for the murder of Mr. Spurling and the rape of the boarder, plus 20 years for the robbery.

In December 1994, a federal judge in Baltimore ordered a new sentencing hearing in Mrs. Spurling's case. That ruling was upheld a year later by the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit -- its only decision last year in favor of a death row inmate.

The federal courts said Thomas-bey did not have an effective attorney when he received the death penalty, because his assistant public defender allowed him to be interviewed alone by a psychiatrist working for the prosecution.

Because he chose to be sentenced by a judge rather than a jury, Thomas-bey's death sentence was not vacated by a 1988 Supreme Court decision that found an unconstitutional flaw in the state's jury instructions on the death penalty -- and virtually emptied Death Row.

Defense attorney H. Mark Stichel, who has represented Thomas-bey on appeal for about nine years, praised Mr. Gentry's decision. "I think it was a hard decision for the state, but I think it was a correct decision, and I very much appreciate what the state is doing," he said.

Thomas-bey has an IQ of about 73, Mr. Stichel said, and has shown little reaction to the reprieve.

Pub Date: 3/09/96

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