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'Errors' led to inmate death

The Baltimore Sun

The judge hearing the capital murder trial of twice-convicted killer Kevin G. Johns Jr. said yesterday that when he announces his verdict, he also intends to address what a defense lawyer called the "series of errors" by prison doctors, correctional officers and others that preceded the strangling of an inmate aboard a prison bus in 2005.

Through seven days of testimony, Harford County Circuit Judge Emory A. Plitt Jr. asked pointed questions of several witnesses, zeroing in on an ignored order of a prison psychiatrist, the scant services available to Johns as a teenager when he was released from a mental health treatment center and the inattention of the guards on board the bus as it rumbled from Hagerstown to Baltimore in the pre-dawn darkness the morning that Philip E. Parker Jr. was killed.

Plitt's remarks yesterday during lawyers' closing arguments brought some relief to Parker's mother, who sat through the testimony of about two dozen witnesses and the presentation of so many medical records, transcripts and documents from the state's Division of Correction that the judge had another table brought into his office to hold them.

"From the beginning, Kevin [Johns] was the gun, but DOC was the trigger," Melissa Rodriguez tearfully said outside the courthouse after the hearing. "At some point in time, somebody is going to have to acknowledge that they were responsible."

Plitt, who spent two decades serving as counsel to the state's Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services before being appointed to the bench in 1993, said he will take some time to review the evidence before scheduling a hearing to announce his decision about guilt and criminal responsibility in the Johns case. The judge was assigned to hear the case after the defense requested a venue change from Baltimore County.

Johns, 25, who is already serving a 35-year sentence and life without parole for two separate murder convictions, has pleaded not guilty and not criminally responsible by reason of insanity in the prison bus killing. He is accused of strangling Parker, a 20-year-old inmate who was serving a 31/2-year sentence for an unarmed robbery.

The younger inmate, who spent time with Johns at a residential mental health treatment center when they were both teenagers, testified on Johns' behalf the day before the killing. At that sentencing hearing, Johns said he would likely kill again if he did not get psychiatric treatment.

Baltimore County prosecutor S. Ann Brobst asked the judge during her closing arguments to focus on Johns' remarks at that hearing in Hagerstown and in a short video that prison officials made of Johns - still wearing a bloody T-shirt, restraints and waist chain - after he was taken off the bus the morning of Parker's death.

That evidence, from just before and just after the killing, "brackets the murder in this case," she told the judge.

"He doesn't care if he gets caught. He was just sentenced to life without parole," Brobst said. "He has nothing to lose by killing someone else. He has everything to gain."

Denied a chance at the Feb. 1, 2005, sentencing hearing to be sent to the prison system's psychiatric facility for treatment, Johns killed again to get what he wanted, she said. "By killing Philip Parker, it's his last opportunity to possibly ever get out of the DOC," she said.

Brobst also cautioned against trying to understand or judge Johns' actions by any set of morals other than his own. "He lives in a world where bad is good," she said. "The DOC is a world where it's good to be bad. You have a certain cachet in the Division of Correction if you're the baddest guy."

But a defense attorney for Johns argued that Parker was strangled by a man "in the complete grips" of a mental disease.

The legal standard for determining a defendant's criminal responsibility revolves around his ability to "appreciate the criminality of his conduct" or "conform his conduct to the requirements of the law." In Johns' case, defense attorneys are trying to prove by a preponderance of the evidence - that is, it is more likely than not - that a mental defect or mental disorder prevents him from being able to control his behavior.

To that end, defense attorneys called as witnesses prisoners who have been housed near Johns in Baltimore's maximum-security Supermax prison and five psychiatrists and psychologists who combed through thousands of pages of records from the nearly two decades that Johns has been institutionalized or incarcerated.

The inmates testified that Johns covered the walls of his cell with writing and drawings, often could be heard talking to himself and sometimes refused to eat prison food or candy from his friends for fear that it was poisoned. The expert witnesses shared their various diagnoses of Johns, from schizo-affective disorder to anti-social and personality disorders, and walked the judge through the often-contradictory actions of the medical staff who have treated Johns since he was locked up in 2002 for his first murder.

In January 2005, for example - just 16 days before the prison bus killing - a Supermax psychiatrist ordered that Johns be transferred to the state prison system's psychiatric facility because his behavior in an isolation cell had grown increasingly unstable. But the next morning, a psychologist at Supermax decided that Johns was to remain at the Baltimore prison and be returned to his regular cell.

In his closing argument yesterday, defense attorney Harry J. Trainor Jr. highlighted those contradictory orders in documenting what he called "a perfect storm of errors" that preceded the bus killing.

The defense lawyer pointed out mistakes by attorneys who represented Johns in a previous murder case, by prison doctors who evaluated and treated him and by correctional officers who did nothing to separate Johns from his fellow inmates on the bus and who sat only six feet away during the attack but did nothing. Several inmates testified that correctional officers - seated at the back of the bus, just two rows behind the seat where Parker was killed - watched a hand-held television and read the newspaper as Johns twice attacked the younger inmate.

"There was a series of errors - some large and some small - that come together to form the perfect storm of errors," Trainor told the judge.

That's when Plitt interrupted. "I intend to address all of those in my decision," he said.

Trainor also referred to the findings within more than 5,000 pages of doctors' reports, psychiatric evaluations and treatment notes collected over Johns' lifetime of mental illness. Pointing out that this was the first time in his client's life that all those documents have been collectively reviewed and analyzed, Trainor told the judge, "A lot of mistakes have been made in the past. This is really our last chance to get it right."

If Johns is found guilty of murder and criminally responsible, he must then choose whether to be sentenced by the judge or a jury. Prosecutors are seeking a death sentence.

If he is found not criminally responsible, Johns would be committed to the state's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and incarcerated at a maximum-security psychiatric facility.

jennifer.mcmenamin@baltsun.com

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