A judge rejected the death penalty for a prison inmate convicted in the shooting death of a Western Maryland correctional officer, calling him "an evil man" but saying yesterday that he wanted to spare the victim's family from the repeated appeals that accompany a death sentence.
Circuit Judge Joseph P. Manck instead sentenced Brandon T. Morris to life in prison with no chance of parole.
The judge, who recalled his experience with the murder of his mother, said he was persuaded by testimony about Morris' neglectful and abusive childhood, along with concerns that correctional officer Jeffery A. Wroten's family would be dragged into courtrooms for years to come.
"It is, without question, the most cruel and unusual punishment for surviving victims to go through," Manck said of the appeals process, which in some capital cases in Maryland has lasted more than two decades.
"It's an outrageous situation to be in," he said. "It's an outrageous way to punish victims even more than what they've already suffered."
Morris' sentencing in Howard County Circuit Court comes during a de facto moratorium on executions in Maryland and as the General Assembly is expected to again debate a repeal of the state's death penalty law during this legislative session.
The Morris case is the third in the past eight months in which Maryland judges and juries have declined to impose the death penalty. It has been a decade since a death sentence was imposed in Maryland that has not since been overturned by the state's appellate courts.
Katy O'Donnell, chief of the capital defense division of the state public defender's office, said the recent decisions suggest that Maryland judges and juries are reluctant to impose the ultimate sanction.
"I think that's the pattern that's being established," she said. O'Donnell commended Manck for "his thoughtful reflection, his detailed attention to the evidence, his sensitivity to Mr. Wroten's family and his courage to impose the appropriate sentence under all the circumstances."
But some correctional officers, and the victim's family, say criminals such as Morris should be put to death because they pose a threat to officers and society.
Mark Martin, a captain at the Roxbury Correctional Institution in Hagerstown, said that while security can be enhanced for Morris, it would come at a high cost.
"I believe that he presents an enormous risk," Martin said.
Wroten's former wife, Tracey Wroten, who spoke for the family, said the Wrotens "completely supported" the prosecutors and the family should be able to decide whether it is willing to endure the appeals.
"It would have been worth that process for true justice to be served," she said after the sentencing.
Earlier this month, a jury found Morris guilty of first-degree murder and 21 other charges in the events surrounding the shooting death of Wroten in 2006.
Morris, 22, of Baltimore, shot Jeffery Wroten in the face with the officer's state-issued revolver while escaping from Washington County Hospital in January 2006. Morris was serving a seven-year sentence at Roxbury for armed robbery and assault. He had been taken to the hospital for overnight treatment after stabbing himself near the liver.
Manck - who also sentenced Morris to 277 consecutive years for the other charges - told Morris that under state law, even if the murder conviction is overturned, he could not be considered for parole for nearly 150 years.
In addition to Morris' childhood, the judge said he considered that the killer has the "maturity level of, at best, a high school student, at worst, probably a sixth-grader."
Prosecutors had argued that Morris should not be given leniency because of his background.
"There is going to be an ongoing concern about public safety in the prison," said Washington County State's Attorney Charles Strong.
Although judges and juries in Maryland can sentence convicted murderers to death, the state's highest court halted all executions in 2006 until the steps for putting a prisoner to death by injection are rewritten with the required legislative oversight and public input.
Gov. Martin O'Malley, a death penalty opponent, has held off directing prison officials to draft new regulations on lethal injection, explaining that he wants to give the legislature another opportunity this year to debate repeal bills.
"It makes you kind of wonder why we have a death penalty - why we bother," said Jane Henderson, executive director of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions. "You'd think we'd just abandon the whole enterprise and recognize that Maryland judges and juries are going to sentence people to life without parole."
But Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger, a proponent of capital punishment whose office is handling seven capital cases, said the death penalty remains an essential sentencing option.
"I recognize that when you seek the ultimate punishment, sometimes reasonable minds can differ," he said. "But I still believe that we need to keep this sentence around for the next correctional officer who gets killed or the next police officer who gets killed, because it's still a very important tool to have in our arsenal."
In sentencing proceedings, Morris' lawyers referred to two Baltimore County cases in 2003, when Circuit Judge Dana M. Levitz twice decided to sentence convicted killers to life in prison in death-eligible cases, explaining that he was loath to impose a death sentence because of the impact of its "unending" appeals process on victims' families.
Manck, in making his decision, pointed to the cases of Vernon Lee Evans Jr. and Anthony Grandison, who were sentenced to death for killings that occurred in 1983 and are still on death row.
Tracey Wroten said she doesn't believe Morris is sorry.
"There will be no forgiving Morris for this crime and pain he has caused my daughters and son," Wroten wrote in a statement.
Manck told the members of the Wroten family in court yesterday that after two years, they will now be able to think of only the good memories of Jeffery Wroten.
The judge's 80-year-old mother, Beatrice Lippman Manck, was stabbed to death in 1995 at her apartment in Northwest Baltimore in an apparent robbery.
"Tomorrow when you wake up, it'll be the first time you won't have to come to court," Manck, a retired Anne Arundel County circuit judge, told the victim's family in Howard County Circuit Court yesterday.
"Tomorrow, those memories of Mr. Wroten you can embrace and enjoy. I'm not telling you this as a judge for 19 years, but candidly as someone who sat where you sat," Manck said.
"I wish and hope that you find peace with all of this."