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Jury rejects death penalty for Stephens

Ben Mook//Daily Record Legal Affairs Writer//February 29, 2012

Jury rejects death penalty for Stephens

By Ben Mook

//Daily Record Legal Affairs Writer

//February 29, 2012

One week ago, defense attorney Gary Proctor had begged the jurors to spare the life of his client. He reminded them that a life sentence would mean just that: Lee E. Stephens, already incarcerated for another murder, would die behind bars in a cell the size of a bathroom.

“He will pay and pay dearly,” Proctor told the jury. “The question is, why do we need to kill him?”

On Wednesday afternoon, the jury agreed. The same panel that had convicted Stephens of first-degree murder for the 2006 stabbing of Cpl. David McGuinn at the now-closed Maryland House of Correction, and had found him eligible for the death penalty, recommended a sentence of life without parole.

“He was relieved, not so much for himself but for his mother,” Proctor said of his client after the sentencing. “He knew that she would be the one that would have to bury him.”

Both Proctor and the lead prosecutor, Assistant State’s Attorney Sandra Howell, had invoked Stephens’ mother during the sentencing phase of the trial in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court.

Proctor emphasized the family’s poverty and the rough surroundings he grew up in on the Eastern Shore. He told the jurors that Stephens’ mother had been forced to work long hours, and that, as a child, Stephens had suffered abusive treatment at the hands of his father and stepfather. That, Proctor said, was followed by incarceration at a juvenile facility and the notoriously violent House of Correction.

“[Stephens] never had a chance,” Proctor said Wednesday. “At every stage in his life, he was failed.”

Howell, though, told the jury that it was Stephens’ decisions, not his upbringing, that led him to where he is today. She said Stephens had a loving mother and siblings and an extended family that supported him.

Howell said Stephens, 32, started getting in trouble with the law around the age of 11 and, in 1997, was involved in a shooting outside a Salisbury nightclub that landed him in the House of Correction for felony murder.

He was serving his sentence of life plus 15 years at the Jessup facility in 2006, when, according to prosecutors, he and another inmate jimmied the lock on their cell doors and ambushed McGuinn as the officer took an inmate count. The second alleged assailant, Lamarr C. Harris, is facing a hearing on April 10 to determine whether he is competent to stand trial.

Mitigating factors

Stephens’ case was the first capital trial in Anne Arundel County, and just the second in the state, since the General Assembly restricted eligibility for the death penalty in 2009. The jury has rejected the death penalty both times.

The 2009 law, a compromise measure between pro- and anti-death penalty legislators, requires DNA, biological evidence, a videotaped confession or video evidence in order to seek the death penalty.

Stephens’ lawyers argued that the DNA evidence linked him only to the vicinity of the crime, not to the crime itself.

Proctor and his co-counsel, Michael Lawlor, explained the stains on Stephens’ clothing as a result of the copious amount of blood that splashed around after the attack and was carried in by investigators in the immediate aftermath of the attack.

Jurors rejected that rationale, finding the DNA sufficient to link Stephens to the stabbing itself.

While the prosecution won that argument, the jury ultimately determined that mitigating factors outweighed the aggravating factors cited by the state.

The jury sheet submitted to the court notes that the panel unanimously found, as mitigating factors, the “culture of poverty, drugs, chaos and violence in the neighborhood and in his home” and the lack of positive male role models, as well as the fact that “Mr. Stephens is a human being and his life has value; therefore, mercy may be appropriate.”

At least one but fewer than all 12 of the jurors also found that the House of Correction’s failure to provide a secure and safe prison contributed to McGuinn’s death, and that “the state’s programs failed to reform Mr. Stephens and in fact exacerbated his problems.”

The Maryland House of Correction was closed after a second correctional officer was attacked in 2006. There were three inmate-on-inmate incidents that year as well.

Judge Paul A. Hackner, who presided over both phases of the trial, will officially impose Stephens’ sentence at a date that had not been determined at press time.

Both sides thanked and expressed admiration for the jurors’ attention and deliberation over the lengthy proceedings, which got underway in January.

“After five-and-a-half years of time has gone by and two months of trial and weeks of deliberation, we feel this was a major step forward for justice for Corporal David McGuinn,” Howell said. “There was due consideration given to all of the evidence and arguments that were made before the jury. This decision is one that the state’s attorney’s office respects.”

After speaking with McGuinn’s family, Howell said they recognized that McGuinn was a strong believer in the criminal justice system and would have respected the jury’s decision after such careful deliberation.


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