ANNAPOLIS — The death-penalty trial of a man accused of stabbing a Jessup prison guard to death can proceed, Maryland’s top court said Tuesday.
The Court of Appeals, in a one-sentence order, lifted a stay it issued, pending appeal, in January preventing the trial of Lee E. Stephens from beginning in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court. The high court gave no reason for lifting the stay or for dismissing Stephens’ appeal, saying only that it will issue an opinion at a later date.
The court issued its order four days after hearing arguments from Stephens’ attorney that Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Paul A. Hackner improperly allowed prosecutors to seek the death penalty at trial without first holding a pre-trial hearing. Attorney A. Stephen Hut Jr. argued Friday that Hackner must hold a preliminary hearing to determine if prosecutors have valid DNA evidence enabling them to seek the death penalty.
During the argument session, several Court of Appeals judges said Stephens’ appeal, which was brought prior to trial, might be premature. The judges said appellate courts generally do not hear criminal appeals until a final verdict has been rendered.
Stephens will stand trial for his life on charges of murdering David W. McGuinn, who was stabbed to death in the Maryland House of Correction in July 2006. Stephens and Lamarr C. Harris are accused of stabbing McGuinn while both defendants were serving life sentences at the Jessup facility, which has since been closed. (Harris was deemed unfit to stand trial in 2008, a finding the state has challenged.)
The case before the Court of Appeals marked the first time the judges have considered a 2009 Maryland law limiting imposition of the death penalty to instances when a murderer’s conviction is based on DNA evidence; a videotaped, voluntary confession; or a video recording that conclusively links the defendant to the murder.