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Back to shackles for this suspect

The Baltimore Sun

I could be wrong, but I'm having a hard time believing that Brandon T. Morris was smart enough to see that if he tried to escape from the Howard County circuit court building, then his trial would be postponed.

But that's what's happened. Yesterday, Howard County Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney told Washington County prosecutors and Morris' defense attorneys that, in the next several weeks, he would issue his ruling on whether he should continue to preside over the case.

That information comes from Washington County Deputy State's Attorney Joseph S. Michael, who was to be the prosecutor at Morris' trial. Sweeney postponed the trial, Michael said, because Morris' escape attempt had tainted the jury pool.

The judge was "concerned about getting enough unbiased jurors in there," Michael said.

Washington County prosecutors allege that in January 2006, Morris fatally shot corrections officer Jeffery A. Wroten in the face after somehow undoing his restraints at Washington County Hospital, where Morris was being treated for a wound. The prosecutors say Morris then carjacked a taxi before being caught near the Pennsylvania state line.

His trial was moved from Washington County to Howard County. A jury pool of 140 people was in the courtroom for a preliminary screening Thursday when Morris made an ill-advised bolt for the door. His speed didn't quite match that of Howard County sheriff's deputies, who tackled him before he made it out of the courtroom.

A note to Morris: You wouldn't have gotten far, even if you had made it out the courtroom door. The Howard County sheriff's office -- where quite a few very big and very cognizant deputies hang out -- is located in the same building as the courtroom, dimwit.

That's why I can't believe that Morris is smart enough to have tried to pull off a hopeless escape attempt thinking that it might get his trial postponed just a little longer. According to previous articles in The Sun, Morris was sentenced in 2003 for armed robbery and assault. He was scheduled to be released in 2010.

Why would he do anything to risk his not being released in seven years? Doesn't he realize what some other inmates would give for a seven-year bit?

Even though Morris is accused of killing a corrections officer, he hasn't forfeited his constitutional rights. And apparently he's too dumb to realize that the system is rigged in his favor because of all those complaints from liberals who are concerned about protecting defendants.

One of those rights is the presumption of innocence. That's why an unshackled Morris was in the courtroom on Thursday in the first place.

"The judge told us he had to be free in the courtroom," Sgt. Charles Gable of the Howard County sheriff's office told me yesterday afternoon. Seven years ago, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that shackling defendants was prejudicial and that prosecutors had to justify shackles only after an "individualized evaluation," according to an article in The Sun from November 1997.

So by having sheriff's deputies remove Morris' shackles, Sweeney was trying to help the defendant. Morris is as entitled to the presumption of innocence as any other defendant, Sweeney correctly reasoned, and deserves jurors who are as impartial as possible.

Well, no good deed goes unpunished, as the old saying goes.

Now the judge, who was trying to give Morris as fair a trial as possible, might have to recuse himself. Sweeney witnessed Morris' escape attempt. He's no longer an impartial presiding judge. Morris' trial could possibly be moved to yet another county, to another judge who's a real hard-line, law-and-order type.

And it would serve Morris right.

The difference between how Morris was treated Thursday -- when jurors were present -- and how he was treated at the hearing yesterday is like night and day. No jurors were present when Sweeney told the prosecutor and defense attorney that he would have to rule on whether he could still preside at the trial.

"He [Morris] was fully shackled today," Gable said. "He was hooked up with everything humanly possible."

Everybody in court yesterday knew Morris was an inmate at a state penal institution: Sweeney, Michael, Morris' defense attorney, the sheriff's deputies. There was no need for him to be unshackled.

In the matter of the death of Wroten, Morris' status as a prison inmate is supposed to be immaterial. Prosecutors have to present evidence proving that Morris killed Wroten. An impartial jury -- at least one as impartial as possible -- is supposed to weigh the evidence and render a verdict.

Such finer points of law are obviously lost on Brandon Morris.


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