A Baltimore County Circuit judge declined yesterday to sentence Wesley Allen Rollins to death, saying that despite a jury's verdict to the contrary, he did not believe beyond a reasonable doubt that Rollins murdered 71-year-old Irene Ebberts.
"If he could be charged and given the death penalty for being a horrible human being and a predator on society, I would do it in an instant," Judge John F. Fader II said as he imposed a sentence of life without parole.
The judge then looked at members of Ebberts' family, who sat stony-faced along one courtroom bench.
"I'm sorry," he said.
Before a judge or jurors can impose a death sentence, they must first decide that prosecutors have proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant directly caused the victim's death.
This decision is made separately from the guilt-or-innocence phase, so Fader had to re-evaluate the evidence from Rollins' April trial and reach his own conclusion yesterday.
Regardless of his decision, the judge could not overturn the jury's verdict that Rollins had smothered the 81-pound Ebberts in her bed.
During Rollins' trial, medical experts disagreed on whether a homicide had occurred. Prosecution witnesses said physical evidence at the scene, with Rollins' statements to a friend, proved that the 55-year-old Glen Burnie man smothered Ebberts. Defense experts testified that although Rollins admitted burglarizing Ebberts' Catonsville home Oct. 16, 2001, the elderly woman died of natural causes days later.
Yesterday, Fader said he suspects that Rollins killed Ebberts but that strong testimony on both sides kept him from reaching any conclusion beyond a reasonable doubt.
"We're very relieved," said Donald E. Zaremba, the Baltimore County deputy district public defender who represented Rollins with Assistant Public Defender F. Spencer Gordon. "I'm just grateful the judge was so attentive to the evidence."
Once the death penalty was eliminated as a possible sentence, the jury verdict again took precedence.
"The only way society will be safe from you is if you never step outside that prison door," Fader said. "Ever."
Fader's decision marks at least the third time this year that a Baltimore County judge has declined to issue a death sentence in a capital case. Statistics show a decline in the number of death sentences being imposed in Maryland and nationwide.
After Fader's decision, Ebberts' son and brothers fumed outside the courtroom while other relatives cried. They wore buttons with Ebberts' image, showing a smiling, blue-eyed woman.
"I would have liked to see him die," John Ebberts said, pacing. "He watched my mother die."
John Ebberts, Ebberts' only child, was the one person to testify for the prosecution during the nearly nine-hour hearing. He spoke briefly about his pain and the changes in his life since he found out that his mother had been killed on his birthday.
"I can't begin to say how devastated my family is," he said. "It's on my mind every morning when I get up, it's on my mind every evening when I go to bed."
But after his short testimony, the hearing's focus turned to Rollins- a point Fader unhappily brought up about 7 p.m.
"Well, here we are," the judge said. "One half hour we've spent with Irene Ebberts, eight-and-a-half we've spent with Wesley Rollins. I'm sure you all know how I feel about that."
During those 8 1/2 hours, defense attorneys and their witnesses described Rollins as a troubled man who had been incarcerated for most of his adult life, who was a constant disappointment in school as a child and regularly in trouble.
One social worker testified that Rollins had also failed first grade.
Zaremba and defense witnesses focused on the brain damage they said Rollins suffered as a child in a series of accidents - everything from falling off a wall, to getting hit by a car, to crashing a car he had stolen into a tree as he was being chased by police.
Zaremba argued that his client's mental limitations meant he had less culpability, and might render the death penalty in his case unconstitutional.