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Crime

State’s Attorney Ivan Bates will handle prosecution of man accused of fatally stabbing deaf cellmate in Baltimore jail

Baltimore State's Attorney Ivan J. Bates, right, speaks at a press conference on Friday, Jan. 20, 2023, in Baltimore. Bates announced Friday that he’ll personally prosecute defendant Gordon Staron, who was jailed on murder charges last year when he allegedly strangled his deaf cellmate to death. (Kevin Richardson/The Baltimore Sun via AP)

Baltimore State’s Attorney Ivan Bates will handle the prosecution of a man accused of killing his deaf cellmate, Javarick Gantt, at a city jail in October.

The development came to light Friday morning during a routine Reception Court appearance for Gordon Staron, who is charged with murder in two cases: Gantt’s death and the fatal stabbing of 63-year-old Keith Bell in September.

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Bates entered his appearance in the case stemming from Gantt’s death, not Bell’s killing. He will work alongside Assistant State’s Attorney Tonya LaPolla, one of the office’s most experienced prosecutors. LaPolla is prosecuting Staron in the case where he is accused of stabbing Bell to death.

In taking on the high-profile case, Bates, a Democrat about three weeks into his new job as the city’s top prosecutor, is making good on a campaign pledge that he would try at least one homicide case per year while in office. He said Friday the gesture also symbolized his commitment to battling violence and willingness to do the work alongside the attorneys who work for him.

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“For 20 years, I’ve been a defense attorney. I’ve tried a lot of cases around the country. I want the criminal element to know that I’m truly on the other side and I’m here to hold you accountable, that my job is to protect the citizens of Baltimore City,” Bates said at a news conference.

Bates said his homicide prosecutors, including veterans like LaPolla, who he dubbed “one of the best prosecutors I’ve ever seen,” face unruly caseloads, going from one trial one week to another trial the next.

“It’s important that the prosecutors in this office recognize that I see them on the front lines, and I’m here to jump in the front line when I can. ... I don’t just have your back, I’m standing beside you as we fight crime together,” Bates said.

Bates was not on the video hearing Friday when the case came up. LaPolla said in court that prosecutors filed notice they intend to seek a punishment of life without the possibility of parole — the maximum sentence for murder in Maryland — in each case, if they secure convictions.

A lawyer filling in Friday for Staron’s defense attorney, Jason Silverstein, said the defense asked in court papers for Staron to be evaluated for his competency to stand trial and that Staron pleaded not criminally responsible by reason of insanity in both cases.

The defense lawyer said a judge ordered Staron be evaluated by the Maryland Department of Health.

An evaluation of a defendant’s competence to stand trial has to do with their ability to understand the court proceedings — the charges they face, the roles of a judge, jury, prosecutor — and their ability to participate in their own defense. If a judge rules someone is not competent to stand trial, their mental state is reevaluated every year to determine if it has changed, and whether they can be tried.

To be found not criminally responsible, someone charged with a crime must prove they couldn’t, because of a mental disorder, understand their actions were criminal or that their condition prevented them from being able to abide by the law. The evaluations seek to unpack the person’s thinking at the time of the crime.

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Because Staron entered the plea in both cases, state psychiatrists are likely to conduct separate evaluations for each crime. Typically with crimes of violence like murder, defendants are driven from pretrial detention for evaluation by doctors at Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center, the state’s only maximum security psychiatric facility.

Reached by phone, Silverstein said the results of the health department’s evaluations of his client will determine how the case proceeds.

“I think there are some certain mental deficiencies that were going on both at the time of the offense and now,” Silverstein said.

If Staron does have serious mental health problems, Silverstein said, the focus becomes “getting him the proper mental treatment.”

Gantt’s killing raised questions of how a deaf man facing domestic violence allegations lingered in jail and wound up in the same cell as Staron, who was being held on murder charges in Bell’s killing.

Standing at just over 5 feet tall and weighing about 100 pounds, Gantt communicated with sign language.

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According to charging documents, Staron is a foot taller than Gantt and weighs about twice as much.

They were locked in the same cell together beginning around 7:20 p.m. Oct. 8. A witness in the same dorm told investigators he heard Gantt making noises and banging on his cell door between 10 p.m. and midnight, charging documents say.

Detectives reviewed footage from the dorm and determined nobody else entered the cell until about 6:30 the next morning, when Gantt was found dead.

About a month earlier, homicide detectives rushed to the scene of a stabbing in the 1400 block of Monument Street. Officers had arrived around 2:30 a.m. Sept. 6 to find Bell at the bus stop, unresponsive.

He was taken to a hospital but died.

A medical examiner did an autopsy on Bell and ruled his death a homicide by stabbing, according to charging documents.

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Detectives wrote in court papers that surveillance footage showed a man wipe a shiny object with his shirt, toss the shirt in a dumpster and speed away in a silver Toyota pickup from the area around the bus stop where Bell was found. The truck was registered to a woman with Staron’s last name in Harford County.

Investigators said they picked up two blue latex gloves stained by what they suspected was blood near the spot where the pickup had parked.

Harford County Sheriff’s deputies arrested Staron two days later. Baltimore police searched a different vehicle at the Abingdon home where Staron lived and found a knife with a brown and yellow handle that his family members allegedly told investigators Staron carried regularly.

On Friday, Bates said the fatal stabbings of Bell and Gantt were not related other than Staron being accused of both.

Staron is due back in reception court alongside prosecutors in Staron’s cases on April 17.


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