Murder trial defendant tries escape

The Baltimore Sun

A state prison inmate from Baltimore accused of killing a correctional officer, kidnapping a hospital visitor and carjacking a taxi driver leaped from his courtroom chair yesterday in an escape attempt before security personnel tackled him.

The midafternoon ruckus erupted in front of dozens of potential jurors and rocked the Howard County Circuit Court as sheriff's deputies and plainclothes prison guards raced to stop Brandon T. Morris' bid for freedom.

"It sounded like a thunderstorm, like a stampede," said Sgt. Charles M. Gable of the county sheriff's office, who heard the melee from two floors below.

Two sheriff's deputies and two potential jurors received minor injuries in the fracas, officials said.

Morris, 21, stands charged with shooting Jeffery A. Wroten in the face at Washington County Hospital in Hagerstown on Jan. 26, 2006, as the officer lay on the floor, pleading for his life. The 44-year-old Wroten, who worked at Roxbury Correctional Institution, died the next day.

At the hospital, Morris was being treated for what authorities described as a self-inflicted injury - a sewing needle jammed into his abdomen. Wroten had been assigned to guard him.

How Morris got free of his restraints, enabling him to knock Wroten to the floor and take his weapon, remains a mystery. Under state prison policies, inmates under guard are supposed to be shackled to hospital beds. However, restraints are sometimes removed for an inmate to use the bathroom or when a doctor orders removal for medical reasons.

A nurse responding to the noise of the scuffle arrived to find Morris crouched on top of Wroten, and saw the inmate fire the gun in Wroten's face at close range, according to court papers.

Authorities have said Morris fled the hospital in a taxi he allegedly commandeered at gunpoint. He was captured less than an hour later.

With the case receiving substantial publicity, the case was moved from Washington County to the courthouse in Ellicott City for trial. In Maryland, both sides in a death penalty case have an automatic right to have a case tried in a different venue from where the crime occurred.

Jury selection in the trial, expected to last three weeks, is scheduled to begin Monday.

Those responsible for policing the Howard County Courthouse in Ellicott City defended the security plan for Morris.

"Our security was more than adequate," Howard County Sheriff James F. Fitzgerald said at a late afternoon press conference. "Today he didn't present a clear and present danger. He had been very cooperative in the past."

The episode started about 2:45 p.m. on the courthouse's fourth floor after Howard Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney had ordered 140 potential jurors to fill out questionnaires about their backgrounds, officials said.

Under a large chandelier in the ornately appointed courtroom, the judge's clerk was the midst of a roll call for the next panel of 70 potential jurors when Morris bolted for the door, witnesses said.

"He got up from the seat and tried to run out and was tackled by Howard County sheriff's deputies," Washington County Deputy State's Attorney Joseph S. Michael told the Associated Press.

Normally, the courtroom is staffed by two sheriff's deputies, officials said. But eight deputies showed up for Morris' appearance yesterday, sitting within feet of the inmate in the well of the courtroom. Plainclothes correctional officers also sat nearby, witnesses said.

It was one of the deputies who grabbed Morris in a bear hug before he reached the door, officials said. Together, they fell to the floor. Other security officers pilled on top. The courtroom's activated but silent panic alarm drew at least 10 more deputies to Courtroom 1, known as the ceremonial courtroom.

Someone yelled "Gun!" - but according to Fitzgerald, that was a warning to public safety officers to guard their weapons.

"We don't believe [Morris] tried to get to a gun," the sheriff said. The holsters deputies use, he said, make it "almost physically impossible for anyone but the deputy to remove the gun."

Sitting in the courtroom gallery with other potential jurors, two women, 53 and 65, were slightly injured but declined to be taken to a hospital, officials said.

Michael, the prosecutor from Washington County who was in the courtroom, said prosecutors must balance the defendant's constitutional rights to receive a fair trial against the need for courtroom security.

His office, the prosecutor said, did not specifically ask to have Morris shackled in court. "We were satisfied with the precautions that were taken," he said.

The most infamous case of how to treat a disruptive defendant may be Bobby Seale and the trial of the so-called Chicago Seven in the 1960s. Seale called the presiding judge names, and the judge in turn ordered Seale bound and gagged in the courtroom.

But citing a 1997 Maryland Court of Appeals opinion, Fitzgerald said his office is hemmed in by the right of a defendant to appear before a jury without excessive restraints. The Talbot County conviction for a man charged with killing a state trooper was overturned in part because the defendant remained shackled before the jury, the appeals court ruled.

That will change today when Morris is scheduled to appear in court again without potential jurors present. This time, the county sheriff said, the defendant will remained handcuffed and shackled during his hearing.

Sun reporter Sandy Alexander contributed to this article.

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