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Death at jail not first considered a murder

January 30, 2001

Death at jail not first considered a murder



By MARLO BARNHART / Staff Writer


Opening day testimony in a prison murder trial Monday revealed that an inmate's death had been ruled either a suicide or an accident for six months after his body was found in his cell.

Melvin Curtis Rust, 23, and Howard Berryman Jr., 24, are on trial in Washington County Circuit Court, charged with the first-degree felony murder of Lauren Noel at the Maryland Correctional Training Center on Jan. 2, 1999.

Both Rust and Berryman, now housed at the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center in Baltimore, were indicted by a Washington County grand jury in January 2000.

Testimony will continue today as prosecutors introduce more evidence to support their case that Noel was robbed of his designer clothing and shoes and then strangled with his own belt by the two defendants.

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Ruth Noel, mother of the victim, testified she last visited her 23-year-old son the day before he died. She told the jury he was upbeat, talking about the future, his upcoming marriage and his remorse for the drug convictions that landed him in MCTC five months earlier.

She said she had recently sent her son a Guess jacket and jeans, Old Navy jeans and shirt, New Balance and Nike sneakers and a fleece sweatsuit - none of which she got back when her son's property was returned to her.

Assistant Washington County State's Attorney Gina Cirincion told the jury in her opening statement that another inmate saw Rust and Berryman carrying bags of clothing out of Noel's cell.

Additional charges against each man are second-degree murder, robbery, first- and second-degree assault and felony theft.

Maryland State Police Trooper Troy McDonough testified Monday that he was sent to MCTC on Jan. 2, 1999, when Noel's body was discovered.

McDonough said when he got to the cell, he found Noel face up on his bunk with a belt beside his head and his feet bound with strips of torn sheets.

Noel, clad in boxer shorts and a T-shirt, had been found by his cellmate when he returned from breakfast around 5 a.m.

"That morning, I was of the opinion that it was either an accident or auto-erotic asphyxia," McDonough said.

Auto-erotic asphyxia can occur during an attempt to limit oxygen intake as a way to increase sexual arousal.

No fingerprints were gathered from the cell that day, McDonough said. By the time information surfaced that the death may have been a homicide, it was too late to gather any.

In May 1999, McDonough got an indication from Noel's mother that a robbery may have occurred the day that Noel was found dead.

A now-retired correctional officer, Robert L. Pryor, testified Monday that he was watching comings and goings in the B tier in Housing Unit 4 that morning.

"I'm fast ... I never let inmates carry things from one cell to another," Pryor said. "I didn't see any unusual activity that morning."

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