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In Maryland, Death Sentences Continue to Decline

In the first half of 2008, two more death penalty trials have ended without a death sentence.  Each defendant had opted for judge over jury decisions.  And both cases involved killings committed by men already in prison and so had been highlighted by death penalty proponents to justify continuing the death penalty in Maryland.

These trials continue a trend.  In 2007, two Baltimore County juries opted for LWOP over death in two high profile murder cases.  One of those cases was a second sentencing trial for Jamaal Abeokuto, who had been sentenced to death in 2004.  Abeokuto's had been the only new death sentence handed down in Maryland since 2000.

"The most cruel and unusual punishment for surviving victims"

In late January, Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Joseph Manck sentenced Brandon T. Morris to life without parole (LWOP) for killing correctional officer Jeffery A. Wroten.  The 22-year-old Morris had shot Officer Wroten in the face with the officer's revolver while escaping from Washington County Hospital in January 2006.  Morris, serving a seven-year sentence at Roxbury for armed robbery and assault, had been taken to the hospital for overnight treatment after stabbing himself near the liver.

Judge Manck, a retired judge, was assigned to the long capital trial that had been moved from Baltimore County to Howard County.  His sentencing decision drew special attention as he shared that his own experience with murder moved him to spare Officer Wroten's family the years of legal process that a death sentence dictates.  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.

"It is, without question, the most cruel and unusual punishment for surviving victims to go through," Judge Manck said of the appeals process.  Three of the five men currently sitting on Maryland's death row were first sentenced to death a quarter century ago.  "It's an outrageous situation to be in," the judge concluded. "It's an outrageous way to punish victims even more than what they've already suffered."
Speaking directly to Officer Wroten's family, Judge Manck counseled, "Tomorrow when you wake up, it'll be the first time you won't have to come to court.  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.  I wish and hope that you find peace with all of this."

Judge Manck is the second Maryland judge to decide LWOP is in the best interest of the victim's family.  Baltimore County Circuit Judge Dana M. Levitz twice sentenced convicted killers to LWOP in 2003, noting he wanted to spare the families left behind "unending" appeals.

"A preventable tragedy"

In one of the more politicized capital prosecutions in recent years, Harford County Circuit Court Judge Emory A. Plitt Jr. found Kevin G. Johns, Jr. guilty but not criminally responsible for the murder of Philip E. Parker Jr.  Johns murdered Parker in February 2005 on a prisoner bus traveling from Hagerstown to the Supermax prison in Baltimore.  The murder had drawn exceptional media attention and led to the firings of three correctional officers and changes in the Division of Corrections policies governing the transport of prisoners.      
After it was determined that the murder happened in Baltimore County, the State Attorney decided to seek death.  The capital prosecution was not surprising from the County that seeks far more death sentences than any other in Maryland.  What was eye raising was how the County new State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger used the pending Johns prosecution to argue against repealing Maryland's death penalty before General Assembly Committees in 2007 and 2008.  Shellenberger told legislators Maryland needed the death penalty for repeat, prison killers like Johns that it served as a "deterrent of one."

Certainly, John's story is that of a compulsive killer, but also of child abuse, resulting mental illness, and gross state institutional failings.  In 2002, Johns had killed an uncle in Baltimore who he had accused of physical and sexual abuse.  In 2004, while serving a 35-year sentence at a Hagerstown prison for that murder, he strangled his 16-year-old cellmate.  A day after Johns was sentenced to LWOP for the prison killing, Johns killed Parker on the bus, as guards upfront slept and watched handheld TV.  Parker's family has a justified civil lawsuit pending against the state over his killing.

Enter Judge Plitt, who once represented the Maryland State Police and defended the Division of Corrections against prisoner lawsuits.  "Nobody knows the Maryland correctional system better than Emory," one retired Howard County judge told the Baltimore Sun.  "He probably wrote some of the regulations," former state Attorney General Stephen Sachs commented in the same June 9 story.

Judge Plitt was not distracted by the death penalty, and his verdict of "guilty but not criminal responsible" is a rare outcome in a capital prosecution.   In a two-hour verdict delivered on June 9, Judge Plitt determined that Parker's killing was "a preventable tragedy" because the prison system had "ample warnings" that Johns was a threat.  The judge spoke in detail about nearly two decades of documented mental disorders, beginning when Johns was 9-years-old and first prescribed psychotropic drugs.  Johns, now 25, has been institutionalized or in prison most of his life.  Over the years, 5,000 pages of evaluations of Johns had diagnosed him with a dozen severe problems, including fetal alcohol syndrome, lead poisoning and schizo-affected disorder.

More pointedly, Judge Plitt questioned how a prison psychologist was allowed to overrule the prison psychiatrist's orders for Johns to be medicated and transferred to a psychiatric facility.  Johns was taken off his medication shortly before he killed Parker because the psychologist believed he was faking his mental disorders.  He also questioned why Parker, who had killed twice, had not been secured separately on the bus in an empty cage designed for prisoners needing extra security.  "Based on the undisputed evidence presented to me during the trial," Judge Plitt concluded, "it seems to me that the death of Mr. Parker could have been avoided."

The judge ordered that Johns be committed to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, seeming to have lost faith in the prison system providing Johns the treatment he needs.  Johns was not medicated during the trial.  "He has spent his entire life on psychotropic medicine," defense attorney Harry J. Trainor, Jr. said of his client after the verdict. "He needs it.  He'll be a much safer human being.  It's the best thing for Kevin.  It's the best thing for society."