Federal authorities did not make a "bad faith" decision when they destroyed most of the suspected explosives found in Richmond C. Laney's Ellicott City home last summer before the devices could be tested, a Howard County Circuit judge ruled yesterday.
Instead, investigators appeared to be motivated by their concern for the public's safety, Judge Raymond J. Kane Jr. said before denying the former candidate for sheriff's motion to dismiss prosecutors' case against him.
Yesterday's ruling boosted prosecutors over the most basic of hurdles stemming from the Army's decision to detonate the cache of suspected explosives that were discovered July 14 in Laney's Fels Lane house. Laney, 44, will be tried June 4 on charges that he stockpiled an arsenal in his home.
But Deputy State's Attorney I. Matthew Campbell acknowledged yesterday that by destroying the items before they could be tested, investigators created "obstacles" he will have to overcome at trial. Still, he said, the decision to protect public safety was more important than "making it easier for the state to prosecute this case."
"Those people put their heads together and decided these were dangerous," he said.
Earlier, Deputy Public Defender Louis P. Willemin, who is representing Laney, argued that destruction of the suspected explosives made it impossible to determine if the items were live or not - and whether they were even explosives.
An Army official acknowledged, he said, that the devices were never tested because the Army does not act as an investigator and that they were destroyed because the military wasn't "authorized" to store them for any period of time.
A defense expert testified yesterday that each of the suspected explosives could have been detonated individually - while the whole procedure was videotaped - and that the residue could have been collected for testing. Instead, the items were piled into a pit, covered with explosives and detonated, leaving nothing to test, said Ronald F. Decker of Decker-Neff Investigations.
But Army 1st Sgt. Steven Bryant testified for the prosecution that some of the devices looked old and were rusty and caked with dirt.
"They obviously posed, in my opinion, a threat to life and property," he said.
Laney, an unsuccessful candidate for sheriff in 1990 and 1994, was in jail on a conviction stemming from nonpayment of child support - a conviction that has since been overturned on appeal - when a property manager for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs visited his home as part of a foreclosure action and found the suspected explosives inside.
Laney was arrested, but the case against him was temporarily dropped in March because prosecutors reported a problem with the one charge in the indictment that dealt with an item - a piece of commercial detonating cord - that had been tested.
A new indictment was filed a week later.
Yesterday's hearing focused on the decision to destroy the devices, many of which, experts testified yesterday, were military in origin. Kane is scheduled to hear arguments and testimony tomorrow on whether the search of Laney's home was legal. If it was not, Willemin said he will argue that the discovery of the suspected explosives cannot be admitted at trial.
At issue are Laney's privacy rights. Although he no longer owned the property because of the foreclosure action, Laney was still a tenant in the house, Willemin said.