Too little evidence exists to prove that a prison inmate charged with murdering a corrections officer at a Western Maryland hospital in 2006 planned to kill the man, his lawyer told a jury yesterday.
However, prosecutors said a witness will testify that Brandon T. Morris crouched over the officer, said, "I'm going to kill you," and shot the man in the face with the officer's state-issued revolver.
Whether Morris intended to kill Officer Jeffery A. Wroten emerged as a key issue in the trial, which began yesterday in a Howard County courtroom. Prosecutors have said they will seek the death penalty if Morris is convicted, and for that they must show that the killing was premeditated.
Amid stepped-up security measures, lawyers on both sides presented opening statements yesterday. Witness testimony is scheduled to begin Monday.
Morris, 22, who is from Baltimore, is charged with first-degree murder, kidnapping and robbery, among other charges. His trial was moved to Howard County at the request of his attorneys.
Arcangelo Tuminelli said Morris was taken to the hospital after he intentionally stabbed himself near his liver with a needle while he was in the lockup.
In an earlier incident, Morris stabbed himself in the leg with a sewing needle in an attempt to get out of the isolation cell, the lawyer said. Morris was serving a seven-year sentence at the Roxbury Correctional Institution for armed robbery and assault.
The increased security was prompted by Morris' attempt to flee a Howard County courtroom during jury-selection proceedings in May. Presiding Judge Joseph P. Manck, a retired Anne Arundel County judge who took over the case after a Howard Circuit Court judge recused himself, ruled last month that the attempted courtroom escape could not be admitted as evidence in the murder case.
In the courtroom, Morris wears a stun belt and foot shackles. A skirt was placed around the table where he sits to prevent the jury from seeing the belt and shackles. After jurors left the courtroom yesterday, Morris' hands were muffed and about 10 officers escorted him from the courtroom.
If convicted of first-degree murder, Morris could face the death penalty. A judge rejected a motion filed by Morris' attorneys requesting that capital punishment not be considered.
In Maryland, death penalty cases are the only criminal cases in which a jury, rather than a judge, decides a defendant's sentence.
Although felony murder - in this case, committing a murder while robbing Wroten of his gun - is among the charges against Morris that could result in the death penalty, certain aggravating factors must exist for a jury to hand down such a sentence, including killing a correctional or law enforcement officer.
Tuminelli said hospital staff members will testify that Morris was polite during his stay and that he and Wroten, who picked up an overtime shift guarding Morris at the hospital overnight, had extensive conversation, including discussing details about Wroten's personal life. He said Wroten asked a nurse to bring food for Morris, who had not eaten for most of the day because of his surgery.
"The one thing we don't know is what happened at 5 o'clock in the morning," Tuminelli told the jury, referring to the time that Wroten was shot.
Tuminelli also plans to present evidence discrediting the testimony of the nurse who said she saw Morris crouched on top of Wroten threatening to kill him, saying she was "extremely distressed and upset."
In his opening statement, Joseph Michael, the Washington County deputy state's attorney, said that about 5 a.m. Jan. 26, 2006, a nurse went to check on Morris' hospital room after a patient reported hearing a commotion from the room. He said the nurse saw Morris crouched over Wroten, who was lying on his back, with the officer's gun. The prosecutor said the nurse will testify that Morris looked up at her, then back down at Wroten before making the threat to kill him.
Michael said the nurse ran out the room and ushered her co-workers into a break room. After shooting Wroten, the prosecutor said, Morris went into the room across the hall, grabbed a woman who was visiting an ill relative and demanded her car keys and purse.
Morris then jumped into a taxi outside the hospital and demanded that the driver take him to Pennsylvania, Michael said. A security officer in a vehicle outside the hospital watched the kidnapping and followed the cab while contacting police.
After Morris and the cab driver wrestled for the steering wheel, the cab crashed into a concrete barrier near the Pennsylvania border. Morris jumped out of the cab wearing only his underwear, leaving behind his bloody hospital gown, Michael said.
Morris, with the $38 he took from the cab driver at gunpoint, ran to a truck stop, where he said he had been robbed and needed a ride. Witnesses called police who, within 30 minutes of the shooting, detained Morris, the prosecutor said.
Despite a policy that requires inmates admitted to hospitals to be shackled to their beds, Morris was not shackled at the time of the shooting. Attorneys on both sides agree the reason why is unclear, but the key to the shackles was found on Wroten. Michael said it is likely that Morris' shackles were removed so he could use the bathroom.