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Judge hears arguments to sentence killer to death

The Baltimore Sun

Saying that he poses too great a danger to society, prosecutors argued yesterday that convicted killer Brandon T. Morris deserves a death sentence for killing a correctional officer.

Washington County Deputy State's Attorney Joseph Michael sought to establish Morris' "future dangerousness" during the opening of sentencing hearings in Howard County Circuit Court.

Defense attorney Arcangelo Tuminelli started the proceedings by saying Morris chose to be sentenced by Judge Joseph P. Manck rather than by the jury that convicted him Friday of first-degree murder and other counts in the January 2006 killing of Jeffery A. Wroten in Washington County.

"We came to the conclusion that Morris' wish was probably the best decision," Tuminelli said outside the courthouse yesterday. He noted concern about the effect that the emotional testimony of the prosecution's witnesses could have on a jury.

"The concern is that this kind of evidence ... is powerful enough evidence, and we just wanted someone who would not be overly influenced," Tuminelli said in reference to the testimony of the state's witnesses, who included Wroten's sister and ex-wife.

In Maryland, a death-penalty case is the only kind in which a defendant can choose to have the jury decide the sentence instead of the judge.

After last week's verdict, prosecutors said that Morris' criminal history of violence with firearms makes him too great a danger to be spared the death penalty.

Morris, 22, was convicted of killing Wroten 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.

According to prosecutors, Morris shot Wroten in the face with the officer's state-issued revolver, then jumped into a cab outside the hospital and ordered the driver to take him to Pennsylvania.

After the cab crashed into a concrete barrier, Morris jumped out of the car and ran to a nearby truck stop. Officers later apprehended him in an open field near the Pennsylvania border.

The jury found Morris guilty of all 22 charges against him, including first-degree murder, felony murder during a robbery and felony murder during an escape.

During yesterday's testimony by prosecution witnesses, Wroten's sister, Kailyn Petty, testified about the hardship on his four daughters.

"It's hard for us to talk about him without crying," said Petty, who lives in Charlotte, N.C. "We try to talk about the funny things he did, but you can see the sadness in their eyes.

"He saw them every day. They loved him. They adored him. They were his joy."

Petty recalled the day she and her husband, Joel, went to see Wroten at the hospital after he had been shot.

"He told me that Jeff's not there - he's already gone," she said. "His body's there, but he's not there.

"He was laying on that bed helpless. I couldn't do anything for him. So me and Joel just stood there crying."

Wroten's ex-wife, Tracey Wroten, also testified, though she was limited to verifying personal facts about her former husband that Morris claimed to know, including his favorite movies.

Other witnesses included officials from the state Division of Correction and the Roxbury Correctional Institution.

Maryland State Police Trooper Richard Bachtell, the officer who interviewed Morris after the shooting, said Morris told him that he had lived on the streets of Baltimore since he was 18 years old and that he feels like he's "living in hell on earth."

Bachtell said that when he asked Morris what he thought of Wroten, he replied, "He was a nice dude."

Bachtell also testified that in the interview Morris told him that he did not remember shooting Wroten or escaping the hospital.

The defense will begin presenting its witnesses today. Tuminelli said he plans to present evidence that Morris should be spared the death penalty because his childhood and background made him more susceptible to a criminal lifestyle, including the fact that he grew up in an area of Baltimore so crime-ridden that his family had to move because of a drug raid in the neighborhood.

The defense's witnesses will include experts on social work, psychology and childhood development, Tuminelli said.


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