PRINCESS ANNE - A Somerset County judge set aside yesterday the death sentence of a Baltimore man convicted of the 1986 killing of a bank executive, ruling that jurors might have spared the defendant's life had his lawyer introduced evidence of a troubled upbringing.
Judge Daniel M. Long of the Circuit Court here instead sentenced Kenneth Lloyd Collins, 39, to life in prison.
The decision brought smiles and tears to the knot of Collins relatives who came to this tiny Eastern Shore courthouse from as far as Texas. But the only comfort for the victim's family was that years of emotionally draining appeals were over, and that Collins would remain behind bars.
Collins could seek parole as early as 2010, but prosecutors said he would likely stay in prison until he is an old man.
Collins was convicted in 1988 of the robbery and killing of Wayne L. Breeden, 34, a Maryland National Bank vice president from Towson whose wife had given birth to their first child, a daughter, seven months before. Prosecutors say that Collins watched Breeden withdraw $80 from an automated teller machine in Parkville on Dec. 7, 1986, and then shot him in the back after Breeden resisted a robbery attempt.
The trial was moved to this small town, a three-hour drive away, because of pretrial publicity around Baltimore.
Yesterday's reversal of fortune for Collins - who until yesterday had been one of 10 inmates on Maryland's death row - turned on a Supreme Court ruling last year. The ruling, in a death penalty case involving another Baltimore County killing, requires defense lawyers in capital cases to probe their clients' backgrounds for details, such as childhood abuse or neglect, that might elicit sympathy from jurors at sentencing.
Collins, who had for years filed unsuccessful appeals, argued in his latest that the Supreme Court decision had changed the standards by which his lawyer's conduct should be judged. Long denied Collins' request for a new trial, but ruled that the high court's decision entitled him to a new sentencing hearing.
Deputy State's Attorney Stephen Bailey agreed not to seek the death penalty after consulting with the victim's widow. Margaret Breeden said yesterday that she did not want to expose her family to the years of agonizing appeals another death sentence was bound to produce.
Her family was "tired of reliving the memories of his death every time a new hearing is scheduled," she said in tearful statement to the judge in which she said she had lost faith in the courts. "Not only have we had to deal with losing Wayne so tragically, but we've endured watching a judicial system that focuses so entirely on the defendant."
Bailey said the Breedens were among a growing number of victims' families who have dropped their pursuit of the death sentence in frustration. "Fewer people, although very supportive of the death penalty, are willing to put themselves through a process that many of them see as never ending and not necessarily guaranteeing the results that the system promises," he said.
At the hearing yesterday, a string of character witnesses - including an opponent of the death penalty, a documentary filmmaker and Collins himself - testified that Collins was a changed man, a budding poet and "gentle soul" who had always maintained his innocence. His lawyers, Peter Keith and Neil I. Jacobs, asked Long to free Collins, saying that 16 years in the state's highest-security prison was punishment enough.
But Long voiced skepticism about what Collins' family called his "transformation" and granted the state's request for life in prison, plus 20 years each for handgun and robbery charges.
"The facts of this matter are most troubling," Long said. "A very bright, talented young man had his life taken from him for a little over $80, in a cold and calculated act by a man whose criminal history reflects an extremely violent nature."
The ruling comes amid intensifying scrutiny of the death penalty. Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. called a year ago for an end to the state's death penalty, expressing fears of executing innocent people. His remarks came after a decade in which DNA has freed death-row inmates and after a University of Maryland study finding racial and geographical disparities in the penalty's application.
A series of successful appeals has shrunk Maryland's death row population to nine, from 16 in 1998, the year of the state's last execution. In June, in a case with national ramifications for defense lawyers in capital cases, the Supreme Court overturned the 1989 death sentence of Kevin Wiggins, in the killing of an elderly Woodlawn woman. Yesterday, Long relied on that decision in finding that the defense laid out by Collins' trial lawyer, M. Gordon Tayback, was "deficient."
Long said that Tayback failed to conduct an investigation that might have inspired mercy among jurors. Such an investigation, Long wrote in a 39-page ruling, would have turned up Collins' "marginal intelligence, his limited education, an abusive and alcoholic family history, parental infidelity, violence and abandonment, and a devastating personal and social background."
Tayback had told the court in earlier appeals that his client had specifically asked to avoid any investigation that could cast a shadow over his family, particularly his mother.
Tayback said in an interview yesterday that his decision to defer to his client's wishes was perfectly acceptable conduct for a lawyer at the time. But he said his decision would not hold up under the standards of last year's Supreme Court decision.
"Before the Wiggins case, I was uncomfortable with the situation, but it was legally sufficient representation," he said. "After Wiggins, it is not legally sufficient and therefore the judge is correct."
Tayback, who said he had handled nine death penalty cases as a state-appointed public defender, was indefinitely suspended from the Maryland bar in December after pleading guilty to one count of willfully failing to file a federal income tax return, court papers show.
Yesterday, Collins walked into the courtroom in handcuffs, leg irons, an untucked denim shirt and blue jeans. When he caught sight of his family, he flared his fingers against his chest in a peace sign and whispered, "I love you all."
After the 2 1/2 -hour proceeding, his relatives embraced one another and bent over in sobs. They said the judge's decision lifted the constant, gnawing dread of a loved one's death. "I'm just so uplifted and feel so good," his mother, Rose Marie Thigpen, said in a telephone interview from her home in Texas.
Outside the courthouse, Margaret Breeden said she would have liked to see Collins die for his crimes. But the Supreme Court ruling in the Wiggins case led to her "painful" decision to go along with a lesser sentence.
"He will not pay for my husband's life with a death sentence," she said. "But this is the next best thing."