Two capital murder cases that were moved to Harford County are moving forward as legislators in Annapolis weigh a statewide repeal of the death penalty.
Tomorrow, jury selection begins in the case of Travis Davon Terry, a 24-year-old Baltimore man accused of fatally shooting a longtime friend in a Dundalk apartment building two years ago.
A motions hearing is scheduled next month for Kevin G. Johns Jr., a convicted murderer who is accused of strangling a fellow inmate aboard a bus carrying prisoners to Baltimore's Supermax prison in 2005.
Though both crimes were committed in Baltimore County, the cases will be heard in Bel Air under a provision that gives defendants an automatic right of removal to another jurisdiction.
"They don't have to give a reason, such as pretrial publicity," said Harford County State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly.
The provision has been applied in the opposite direction - the capital murder trial of Jamaal Abeokuto, who was convicted of slashing the throat of his girlfriend's 8-year-old daughter and dumping her body in woods near Joppatowne in 2002, was heard in Baltimore County.
Terry's trial at the Harford County Circuit Courthouse could last as long as three weeks. Prosecutors and defense attorneys from Baltimore County will try the case, and it will be overseen by Baltimore County Circuit Judge Kathleen G. Cox.
The death penalty has received renewed attention since a December ruling imposed a de facto moratorium on executions in Maryland. Legislators have proposed a repeal, which Gov. Martin O'Malley said he will sign if it reaches his desk.
The moratorium was prompted by a court decision in an appeal by death-row inmate Vernon L. Evans, in which the judges found that procedures for administering lethal injections should be reviewed by a committee of state senators and delegates.
It will stand until legislators pass a law that either exempts the procedures from review or addresses the court's regulatory concerns. Lawmakers could do nothing, leaving the moratorium in place.
Former Gov. Parris N. Glendening imposed a moratorium in 2002, citing racial disparity in executions and other issues, but that ban was lifted by his successor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
Six men are on Maryland's death row - four are black, two are white. All their victims were white.
Abeokuto is the only man who has been on Maryland's death row who committed a murder in Harford, according to Maryland Citizens Against State Executions. Wesley Eugene Baker killed a woman in Baltimore County and was convicted by a Harford County jury in 1992.
In December 2005, he became was the fifth man to be executed in Maryland since the state reinstated the death penalty in 1978.
Abeokuto was convicted in 2004 but was granted a new sentencing hearing after the Maryland Court of Appeals voted to rescind the death sentence. Motions will be heard in Baltimore County Circuit Court this week.
Cassilly is a proponent of the death penalty, but he has used it much less often than former Baltimore County State's Attorney Sandra A. O'Connor, a Republican who served eight consecutive terms until retiring last year.
O'Connor's policy was to seek the death penalty in all eligible murder cases, except those that would depend on a co-defendant's testimony and those in which the victim's family objected.
"It's the right thing to do. How else do you make a statement about the severity of the crime if you don't pursue that punishment?" said Cassilly, who is a Republican.
He said life without parole is a strong, effective punishment in Maryland, but the death penalty needs to be an option for criminals who commit multiple killings.
Baltimore County has seven active death penalty cases. It was during O'Connor's final term that prosecutors decided to seek death sentences for Terry and Johns.
Terry is accused of robbing and killing Edwin Leon Potillo III in a Dundalk apartment complex. A woman, Jennifer Parvizimotlaugh, was shot and found bleeding in the stairwell.
Johns' trial is tentatively scheduled to begin in the summer. Police say he killed Philip Parker Jr. on Feb. 2, 2005, aboard a Division of Correction bus that was traveling from Hagerstown to the maximum-security Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center in Baltimore.
The trial was to take place in Worcester County, but was moved to Harford after Worcester prosecutors said they could not accommodate a trial expected to last a month.
Brian Bittner, a former Green Party candidate for the Harford County Council, said he is organizing a group to protest at Johns' hearing in April.
"My concern is that prosecutors will start to see that Harford County is a place where people are likely to hand out an execution - I really don't want that," Bittner said.
On the day before Parker died, Johns told a judge that unless he received psychiatric treatment, he would kill again. His defense attorneys have raised insanity as a possible defense.
CAPITAL CASE TRANSFERS
Two men charged with murder in Baltimore County will have their capital trials conducted in Harford County under a provision that allows defendants facing the death penalty to have their trials moved.
Travis Davon Terry
Terry is accused of fatally shooting Edwin Leon Potillo and wounding a woman in a Dundalk apartment complex June 4, 2005.
First-degree murder, attempted murder, armed robbery, assault and multiple handgun offenses.
Kevin G. Johns Jr.
Twice convicted of murder, Johns is accused of strangling a fellow inmate on a prison bus heading from Hagerstown to Baltimore's Supermax prison Feb. 4, 2005. Johns' previous victims were an uncle and a cellmate - both of whom were strangled. Johns told a judge that he would kill again if he did not receive psychiatric treatment.