Testimony given in post-conviction hearing

August 23, 2003|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

Defending Donna Lynn White in 1986 was the first time Michael Morrissette had handled a first-degree murder case by himself, and he made mistakes, Morrissette testified Friday in Washington County Circuit Court.

Circuit Judge Donald E. Beachley will decide if those mistakes made by Morrissette - now the district public defender for Washington and Frederick counties - are enough to gain a new trial for White.

Through her lawyer, White, 44, has asked the Washington County Circuit Court to review her case in hopes of gaining a new trial or sentencing hearing. She attended Friday's hearing but did not speak, at times clenching a tissue and dabbing her eyes.


Morrissette was the only witness to testify Friday during the second and final day of oral arguments during the post-conviction process. A privately hired psychologist, an attorney and a prison counselor testified April 29.

Along with Bruce Allen Sarver, White was convicted in 1986 on first-degree murder and child abuse charges in connection to the death of her daughter, Brandy Lynn White, then 4.

Police at the time alleged the couple had beaten Brandy White to death because she had hidden nearly $700 in food stamps and money orders. The victim was hospitalized May 18, 1986, and died 10 days later.

Brandy White would have celebrated her 22nd birthday Friday.

Donna White and Sarver received life sentences in separate trials.

Taking the stand Friday, Morrissette said in October 1986, when White and Sarver's trials were taking place, he was a young lawyer who never had worked a first-degree murder case by himself, and he had only once before argued a case in which life in prison was the maximum penalty.

"To this day, this is probably the most emotional case that I had," said Morrissette, who since has defended 17 people accused of murder.

Morrissette said he did not think the heightened media attention given to the case moved from Garrett County affected his defense of White, but "what's possible is it was the first time that I had ever handled a first-degree murder case by myself. That was a factor."

Morrissette testified he could not remember many details of the case now, but he described in detail many of the faults in his defense of White.

He also took time to correct statements by both White's attorney Thomas Kennedy and Garrett County State's Attorney Lisa Thayer Welch to further explain mistakes.

On direct examination, Morrissette told Kennedy that after he mixed up dates for the post-trial hearings, he wrote a letter to White asking her to use the letter as leverage in gaining a new trial.

Welch questioned Morrissette about why he did not use an abuse defense for White.

Morrissette replied, "I don't recall. I would add: I didn't know enough to ask."

Kennedy said Morrissette missed several opportunities to provide White a better defense, before and after trial.

Those missed opportunities included Morrissette's failure to file several motions, including ones to exclude witnesses from White's trial, to continue White's trial until after Sarver's trial was over, and to request a post-trial hearing to reconsider her sentence, according to briefs Kennedy has filed.

Kennedy also said in court papers that Morrissette never presented evidence about a long history of abuse of Donna White, which Kennedy said was a viable defense at the time of the trial.

Kennedy also has claimed errors by the trial court, presided by then-Circuit Judge John Corderman, and the Garrett County State's Attorney's Office.

Beachley ordered Kennedy to complete his final written argument by Nov. 3. Welch was allowed until Dec. 15 to file a reply, and Kennedy until Jan. 15, 2004, to file a rebuttal. Beachley likely then would rule on the matter within several weeks.

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