Death penalty trial delayed for Md. prisoner accused of killing guard
Test of new restrictions could come 5 years after officer's death, but appeal pending
Maryland's first death penalty trial under the state's new restrictions has been delayed until May, and a pending pretrial appeal could delay it further.
The trial of Lee Edward Stephens, one of two prisoners charged in the death of a correctional officer, had been scheduled to begin next month in an Anne Arundel County courtroom, four years after David McGuinn was stabbed at the now-closed Maryland House of Correction in Jessup. The trial was recently postponed for 10 months, giving the defense more time to prepare and perhaps resolve the pretrial appeal.
That appeal, which questions changes in Maryland's death penalty law enacted in 2009, could delay the trial further. If not argued before April, when the appeal is tentatively set to be heard, a decision is unlikely before the trial's scheduled May 5 start.
This month, the Maryland attorney general's office asked the Court of Special Appeals to hear the appeal before Thanksgiving. The request was opposed by Stephens' lawyers, who said preparing for the appeal would conflict with other work.
Stephens, 31, and Lamar Cornelius Harris, 39, could receive the death penalty if convicted of killing McGuinn, 42, on July 25, 2006. They were teenagers when they committed the crimes that sent them to prison for life.
In 2009, Maryland's death penalty law was amended to limit capital punishment to murder cases in which there is DNA or other biological evidence, a videotaped confession or a video recording of the crime.
Stephens' lawyers challenged whether the state's evidence meets the new legal standard. Last year, they asked a judge to hold a hearing on whether the prosecution's DNA evidence, which includes blood on Stephens' underwear, met the requirement of tying DNA to the crime.
In court documents, they described a crime scene so gory that at least one inmate told them that when he was led out of his prison tier, "he literally slipped and fell in a pool of blood." Contending that McGuinn's blood "was everywhere," they argued that his DNA could have linked any of the more than 40 prisoners on the tier to his homicide. They sought to have other prisoners testify.
Prosecutors contended that the DNA evidence was for a jury to evaluate.
After Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Paul A. Hackner rejected the defense challenge, Stephens' lawyers appealed the ruling.
"This is an important issue," said Gary E. Proctor, one of two lawyers hired by the Office of the Public Defender to represent Stephens. "This is the first appeal of the new statute in the state."
Stephens' trial is scheduled to last 10 weeks. Longtime court administrator Robert G. Wallace said he could not recall a trial in the county lasting that long.
No trial date has been set for Harris. His competency to stand trial remains an issue.