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Both sides rest in prison death case

February 01, 2001

Both sides rest in prison death case



By MARLO BARNHART / Staff Writer


Jurors will resume deliberations today in the trial of two former Maryland Correctional Training Center inmates charged in the 1999 death of another prisoner.

The prosecution and defense presented closing arguments Wednesday afternoon, after which the jury of eight men and four women began deliberating on the case of Melvin Curtis Rust and Howard Berryman Jr.

Both men were indicted by a Washington County grand jury in January 2000 on first-degree felony murder charges for the Jan. 2, 1999, strangulation death of Lawson Noel.

Rust, 23, and Berryman, 24, are now housed at the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center in Baltimore. They will be returned to the courthouse this morning at 8:30 a.m. to await the jury's verdicts in Washington County Circuit Court.

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Testimony from a retired Maryland medical examiner early Wednesday, the final day of the trial, called into question whether Noel's death was homicide, suicide or an accident.

Dr. John Adams, a veteran forensic pathologist, testified he reviewed the autopsy report prepared by Dr. Theodore King Jr., who performed the autopsy on Noel.

"I agree the cause of death was strangulation but I believe the manner of death is undetermined," Adams said. "The injuries aren't specific enough to determine how they occurred."

On Tuesday, King testified he ruled the death a homicide because of the magnitude of the neck injuries.

Adams said Wednesday his findings didn't rule out suicide or auto-erotic asphyxia as a cause of death. He admitted he only read reports and didn't visit the crime scene or view the body.

"Mr. Noel was in prison and there is a very common incidence of suicide in prisons," Adams said Wednesday.

With that, Noel's mother, Ruth, stormed out of the courtroom. Two days earlier she testified her son had been upbeat during a visit with her the day before he died.

Noel was found on his bunk by his cellmate on the morning of his death. A belt was around his neck and hooked over a rod on the bottom of the top bunk. His feet were bound.

Only one other witness took the stand Wednesday. Inmate Donnell Johnson, now serving time for murder at the Western Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Md., said he was Melvin Rust's cellmate on Jan. 2, 1999.

"I assume he went to breakfast that morning ... I was asleep," Johnson said, shedding little light on the whereabouts of Rust during the time Noel died.

Neither defendant testified during the trial, which began Monday.

Deon Coates, 19, testified Tuesday he was Noel's cellmate in 1999 and that he warned him about the expensive clothing he got from home and wore around the prison.

He said he was approached by the two defendants who wanted him to help them rob Noel of his clothes.

The prosecution contends it was during breakfast time on Jan. 2, 1999, that Noel was robbed of his designer clothing and shoes and then strangled by Rust and Berryman.

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