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Inmate found guilty by jury

The Baltimore Sun

A jury convicted Brandon T. Morris of first-degree murder yesterday for the killing of a Washington County corrections officer in 2006, a verdict that makes him eligible for the death penalty.

The sentencing phase is scheduled to begin in Howard County Circuit Court on Tuesday, which is when Morris' attorneys will announce whether they want the jury or Judge Joseph P. Manck to determine the sentence.

The jurors, who had deliberated for more than six hours since late Thursday, found Morris guilty on all 22 charges against him, including first-degree murder, felony murder during a robbery and felony murder during an escape.

Morris, 22, of Baltimore, was accused of stealing Jeffery A. Wroten's state-issued revolver and shooting him in the face while escaping from Washington County Hospital in January 2006.

He was serving a seven-year sentence at Roxbury Correctional Institution for armed robbery and assault when he was taken to the hospital after stabbing himself near the liver with a needle. Wroten was guarding him overnight.

Wroten's ex-wife, with an arm around their daughter, wiped her eyes and wept quietly as the jury foreman read the verdict. Tracey Wroten is expected to testify next week during sentencing proceedings. Her testimony will be limited to verifying personal information about her ex-husband that Morris claimed to know, including Wroten's favorite movies.

"First off, I think everybody's relieved," Mark Martin, a captain at Roxbury Correctional Institution, said on behalf of the Wroten family.

"We were praying for it," Martin said. "We have a tough battle all the way through. ... Life goes on for those girls without their father."

Washington County Deputy State's Attorney Joseph Michael described Wroten in his closing argument Thursday as a "fun-loving giant" who, before reporting for the shift during which he was killed, joked around with his five daughters.

A statement released yesterday by the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services said: "Jeff was a fine family man who worked the very shift during which he was killed in order to spend more 'daylight' hours of quality time with his children. He was also the embodiment of what a correctional officer is supposed to be: fair, firm and impartial, but also compassionate and understanding."

Prosecutors praised the jurors' decision.

"Their verdict was obviously the result of considering all the evidence," Washington County State's Attorney Charles P. Strong Jr. said outside the courthouse in Ellicott City.

Defense attorney Arcangelo Tuminelli said that "the game's not over."

"Our contention is that it's not fair," Tuminelli said of a possible death sentence for Morris. "He didn't have the chances other people had. ... Life without parole should be enough."

During the sentencing hearing, Tuminelli said, he plans to present evidence that Morris should be spared the death penalty because his childhood and background placed him on an "uneven playing field than someone who didn't suffer those disadvantages."

After the verdict, Morris "didn't say a whole lot, but he never says a whole lot," Tuminelli said.

Tuminelli said he has handled six capital cases - five state and one federal - and that none has resulted in the death penalty.

In May, Morris tried to escape from a Howard County courtroom during jury-selection proceedings. His trial had been moved to Howard at his attorneys' request. Manck ruled last month that mention of the attempted escape would be prohibited during the trial. The judge said yesterday that it could be admitted in the sentencing hearing.

In what would be an unusual twist, defense attorney Harun Shabazz could be called to testify next week. Shabazz witnessed the attempted escape and has a different recollection of the event from that of the prosecution's witnesses, Tuminelli said. If Shabazz takes the stand, he might have to be recused from the case.

For the sentencing, the prosecution plans to show that Morris has a "dangerous fascination with firearms." Prosecutors will point to Morris' convictions for assault and armed robbery in Virginia and Baltimore after he robbed a gun store and a Fuddruckers restaurant. Mention of those convictions will be allowed during next week's hearings, but the facts of the cases will not, Manck ruled yesterday.

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