ANNAPOLIS — Depending on who was talking, the prosecution’s star witness in the death penalty case against Lee E. Stephens was either a courageous observer who faced the wrath of his fellow inmates or a brazen gangster who only came forward to shave time off his sentence in an unrelated case.
Stephens is accused, along with an accomplice, of stabbing Cpl. David McGuinn to death in an ambush attack at the now-closed Maryland House of Correction in Jessup.
Both sides in the case presented their closing arguments Wednesday morning in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, with the case going to the jury around noon. Jurors deliberated until about 5:30 p.m. without reaching a decision before Judge Paul A. Hackner excused them for the night.
In closing arguments, prosecutors emphasized the eyewitness testimony from other inmates on the cell block and DNA testing that showed blood found on Stephens’ clothing came from McGuinn. As for a motive, lead prosecutor Sandra Howell said it came down to the fact that McGuinn, whose nickname among inmates was “Homeland Security,” was a by-the-book officer.
“The murder of Corporal McGuinn was a brutal and senseless act that happened for no other reason than he represented the system of law and order at the House of Correction,” Howell said.
Howell also spent much of her closing argument underscoring the importance of the testimony of Jason Freed, an inmate who told investigators he saw Stephens and fellow inmate Lamarr Harris stabbing McGuinn on the night of the attack. (Harris is not on trial in this proceeding.)
Howell said Freed’s testimony was not contradicted by any of the other evidence in the case and the details he provided could only have come from someone who witnessed the attack.
“He chose to tell you what happened because he saw what happened,” she added.
Freed originally told investigators he saw two attackers but did not recognize them. According to Howell, Freed revised his story, at risk to his own personal safety, because he feared retaliation for that first statement.
“No one is asking you to like him; this isn’t a popularity contest,” Howell told the jury.
Howell acknowledged that Freed agreed to testify as part of a plea bargain in an unrelated federal gun-crimes case, which could result in a 12-year reduction of his potential 22-year sentence. However, she denied that was his motivation.
“He’ll get time,” Howell said. “And, that won’t bother Mr. Freed.”
Stephens’ lawyer, Michael Lawlor, started his closing argument blasting Freed as little more than a brazen gangster who only ‘remembered’ what he saw when he faced serious time.
“He was facing 22 years, so, courageously, Mr. Freed decides then and there he saw who did it.”
Lawlor told the jury that Freed, who testified to being a member of the Bloods gang, went so far as to show up in court to testify wearing “blood red glasses.”
“The word I would use to describe Jason Freed would not be courageous,” Lawlor said. “Mr. Freed and the word courageous — they should not be used in the same sentence.”
Lawlor told the jury he understood that they might have misgivings about the witnesses, even those the defense called to testify, since they were all inmates. The defense called seven inmates who were housed on the cell block the night of the attack, who testified that Stephens did not stab McGuinn and that the attackers wore masks.
“I’m cognizant of the fact that we have murderers and rapists testifying,” Lawlor told the jury. “But, this is not downtown Kensington, this is the Maryland House of Correction.”
Lawlor told the jury there was no disputing that McGuinn was a respectable officer whose murder was a tragedy. However, he said his client, whose jail nickname was “Shy,” was wrongfully identified as one of the attackers.
Much of the remainder of the closing arguments on both sides consisted of bolstering or criticizing each side’s eyewitnesses and discussing the blood evidence recovered at the scene.
The defense claims the blood evidence does nothing more than put Stephens in the vicinity of the attack.
McGuinn was the only guard on the tier at about 10 p.m. on July 25, 2006 and was carrying out the final inmate count of the night. Prosecutors claim Stephens and Harris rigged their cell doors so that they appeared to close, but could be easily jimmied open — apparently a frequent occurrence on that tier.
Howell said after McGuinn checked Stephens’ and Harris’ cell doors they popped the door open and attacked him from behind.
The jury in the Stephens case will resume deliberations at 9 a.m. on Thursday.