Dead Md. inmate’s kin want jurors to see bus

A judge said Tuesday he will consider letting jurors in a wrongful death trial go inside a prison bus on which an inmate was killed by another inmate.

Baltimore City Circuit Judge Sylvester Cox reserved judgment on a plaintiffs’ motion to allow jurors to view the bus on which inmate Kevin Johns strangled Philip Parker Jr. on Feb. 2, 2005. Parker’s parents and estate are suing the state, alleging negligence by five correctional officers who were aboard the vehicle as it carried 36 inmates through pre-dawn darkness from Hagerstown to Baltimore.

The state contends the officers can’t be held responsible, partly because they didn’t know Parker was in danger.

Jury selection is expected to begin Wednesday for the trial, which is scheduled to last about two weeks.

Johns was convicted in 2008 of killing Parker, 20, by strangling him and slashing his neck with a razor blade. It was his third murder conviction. Johns was found guilty of murdering Parker but not criminally responsible due to mental illness. He killed himself in prison in 2009.

Parker, of Baltimore, was serving a 3 1/2-year sentence for attempting to rob two youths with a broken pellet gun.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Michael Mastracci argued that the jurors cannot fully understand the case without seeing firsthand the segmented bus interior, including a caged area where two officers allegedly were stationed less than 10 feet from where Parker was attacked.

Assistant Attorney General Stephanie Lane-Weber countered that a daylight viewing wouldn’t replicate the conditions of the event. Cox agreed but said the bus, which is still in use, could be brought to a parking garage where lights could be extinguished to simulate nighttime.

“If you bring the bus out, I’ll make it dark, I promise you,” Mastracci said.

Cox noted that Maryland case law that holds that such viewings are to be used as a last resort. The plaintiffs also plan to show jurors numerous photos of the bus interior.

Cox said he would rule at the appropriate time.

“It’s not out of the realm of possibility,” he said.

Cox granted another plaintiffs’ motion barring the defense from referring to prison records about Parker’s alleged rule violations and affiliation with the Bloods, a gang to which Johns also allegedly belonged. Lane-Weber said it was critical for the defense to present evidence that Parker didn’t fear Johns; she said that if Parker never asked officers for protection, they can’t be found negligent in his death.

But Cox said the defense was trying to use Parker’s records to portray him as having contributed to his own death. He said it was almost as if the defense were making the claim: “He was a gangbanger. He got banged by a gangbanger — and he deserved it.”

The judge said Parker’s gang affiliation wasn’t relevant.

“If you’re a member of a gang, what does that have to do with the standard of care that is owed to everyone?” he asked rhetorically.

Parker’s parents, Melissa Rodriguez and Philip E. Parker Sr., along with Parker’s estate, filed the wrongful death claim in 2008. They are seeking compensation of $21 million plus punitive damages. Maryland law limits the state’s compensation obligation to $200,000 except in cases of gross negligence or malice. Punitive damages can be awarded if there is finding of malice.