A Baltimore County Circuit Court judge sentenced convicted killer Clarence Conyers to two life terms without parole yesterday, marking the second time in less than five months he has declined to impose a death sentence, in part because of its possible effects on the victims' families.
"The devastating effect that this unending litigation has on the innocent families of the victims is incalculable. By imposing a death sentence, I ensure that the victim's families will be subjected to many more years of appeals," Judge Dana M. Levitz said in court yesterday.
The prosecution had asked for the death penalty for Conyers, 35, who had received the death penalty twice before for first-degree murder in the October 1994 slayings of Wanda Johnson, 44, and Lawrence Bradshaw, 22, of northwest Baltimore County. Both of those sentences were overturned on appeal.
After the judge announced the sentence, relatives of Conyers and Johnson, who had been friends before the crimes occurred, hugged each other in the courtroom.
Although some of Johnson's relatives said they would have preferred a death sentence, others said Levitz's ruling gave them the peace of mind they have been searching for since her death nine years ago.
"I'm pleased with the sentence because I think I might get some closure from this. I didn't want him out on the street anymore, but killing him wasn't the answer either," Victoria Gibson, 62, Johnson's sister, said yesterday as she wiped away tears.
"Every time we get back in court, it makes everything seem like it just happened yesterday," Gibson had said Thursday. "The first [death sentence] was great, I thought we were going to get justice for my sister . ... [This trial] I just feel like is punishment for my family."
Leaving court yesterday, Conyers' family was relieved to see the process come to an end.
"I'm glad we get to still see him and talk to him, and I'm glad it's over. I think it will help the Johnson family get some closure and give closure to our family, too," said Caryn Conyers, Conyers' sister.
Clarence Conyers did not address the court when given the opportunity yesterday.
In March, Levitz pointed to the effects of the death penalty on the family of the victim as a reason not to impose it. He sentenced Douglas A. Starliper to two life terms for the slayings of two of Starliper's friends.
"This isn't an academic exercise," he said in court then. "By imposing the death sentence, I pretty much assure that this will be an ongoing, seemingly never-ending legal experience."
In Conyers' case, Conyers and Bradshaw were burglarizing Johnson's home when she surprised them and Conyers shot and killed her.
Conyers was convicted Thursday of shooting Bradshaw to death about two days later, prosecutors said, to keep him from going to the police and revealing Conyers as Johnson's killer.
Conyers was also convicted in 1996 on the same charges and sentenced to death. The following year, the sentence was overturned because prosecutors shouldn't have talked about Conyers' 11 juvenile charges that were dismissed.
In 1998, Conyers was again sentenced to death. Last year, the Maryland Court of Appeals overturned his original conviction because prosecutors failed to disclose details of a deal that Charles Johnson, a key witness who had been Conyers' cell mate, struck with the state in exchange for his testimony. Charles Johnson testified that Conyers confessed to the slayings while they shared a cell.
John P. Cox, an assistant state's attorney who helped prosecute the case, said he recommended the death penalty because of the nature of the crimes and Conyers' previous conviction on charges of armed robbery in December 1986.
"I'm very satisfied that the judge gave careful and appropriate thought to this ruling," he said. "In a perfect world, it would be unsatisfying, but it's an unfortunate reality that there is a problem with the way the death penalty has been handled in the appellate system."