An Anne Arundel County judge agreed yesterday to keep secret from the defense the location of inmate witnesses in the fatal stabbing of a correctional officer inside the Maryland House of Correction at Jessup in July, after prosecutors raised concerns about the state prison system's ability to protect the maximum-security inmates from attack.
So extraordinary were the prosecutors' requests for protective orders that James V. Peguese, the Division of Corrections' administrator for security operations, testified that he had never been asked to come to court for such a request.
Peguese told Assistant State's Attorney Eileen Reilly that prison snitches "are marked people," and other prisoners would do "anything from beating the person to killing him."
"The witnesses in the case are in harm's way," Circuit Judge Paul A. Hackner concluded at the close of the six-hour hearing in the cases of Lee E. Stephens, 27, and Lamarr C. Harris, 36.
Stephens and Harris could be sentenced to death if convicted of murder in the July 25 fatal stabbing of correctional officer David McGuinn, 42. The prison facility has been on lockdown since before then.
Prosecutors initially wanted the witnesses' names kept from the defendants also, but that was among information already known. The judge restricted access to the witnesses' statements, saying defense lawyers could discuss the contents with clients but not provide copies.
Three prisoners have been killed this year at the House of Correction, viewed as one of the state's more violent prison facilities. The prevalence of drugs, weapons, cell phones and other contraband has led some to label it the "House of Corruption."
Defense lawyers for Stephens and Harris argued that the state had ways to protect informants - relocating them out of state and isolating them from other prisoners. They contended that if the Division of Correction did a better job, its prisoners would be safer. Peguese, however, disagreed, saying prisoners were inventive and had such an efficient communications network that even relocations were quickly known.
The defense lawyers said protective orders for the witnesses would infringe on their clients' right to a fair trial. They said they should not have to go through prosecutors to arrange to speak with the witnesses; if they were barred from using the names, they would be unable to find out if there was bad blood between their clients and the witnesses.
The judge said he didn't expect a trial to be held until early 2008.