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Jury still out in House of Correction death penalty case

After four full days of deliberation, the jury in the death penalty case against Lee E. Stephens remains undecided about whether he and another man killed a corrections officer in the former Maryland House of Correction.

Cpl. David McGuinn was stabbed to death while on duty during an ambush style attack from behind as he was taking the final lockup count for the night at 10 p.m. on July 25, 2006. Stephens was charged with first-degree murder in McGuinn’s death.

The case went to the jury last Wednesday. While court was not in session Friday, the jurors in the case have been deliberating since. On Tuesday, jurors again did not deliver a verdict and were sent home about 4 p.m.

The case against Stephens is based on eyewitness testimony from former inmates on the cell block where the attack occurred and DNA testing of blood recovered from Stephens’ personal effects. The jury has the option to find Stephens guilty of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit first-degree murder. Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Judge Paul A. Hackner told the jury when they were given the case that the verdict form also included an option to find Stephens guilty of second-degree murder. A first-degree conviction would open the door to further hearings about whether to impose capital punishment.

The jury has had a tough job put in front of them. There are reasonable issues raised on both sides and, with no video footage, a lot of the state’s case came down to a prisoner who said he saw everything through a mirror he held out of his cell door.

Jurors heard testimony about conditions at the 175-year old jail on the hot July night that McGuinn was murdered. The old jail was described as being hot and muggy with the loud overhead blowers doing little to alleviate the heat and instead only adding to the overall din from the 45 inmates on the tier that night. The jurors also heard that on average, the cell block with its narrow catwalk had working light bulbs at about every fifth cell.

Unfortunately for the state, and the defense as well, McGuinn was working alone at the time of the attack and was not able to tell his colleagues who it was that ambushed him. The only witnesses both sides had were former inmates.

In court, during closing arguments, the defense pointed out that the state’s star witness only came forward to ID Stephens after he was picked up on federal firearms violations and facing 22 years in jail. Under a plea agreement, his cooperation with the prosecution could shave 12 years off of that time.

As for the defense’s witnesses, the prosecution likened them to a group of Stephens’ friends who would say anything to help him out.

With the blood evidence, DNA testing links blood found on clothing from Stephens’ cell shortly after the attack. Prosecutors say Stephens rushed back to his cell, tried to wash the blood off of the items and hide what couldn’t be washed. The defense said the area was covered in blood and between the splatter and cross-contamination by the first responders and investigators that was how the blood ended up on Stephens.

Jurors were scheduled to resume deliberations Wednesday morning.