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Lawyer wants trial moved in correctional officer's slaying

September 12, 2006|by PEPPER BALLARD

HAGERSTOWN - A defense attorney for an inmate who faces the death penalty on charges that he killed a correctional officer in January has asked that his client's trial be moved to another county, citing pretrial publicity and the prison system's large employment in Washington County as prejudicial factors, according to court records.

Brandon Travon Morris, 20, faces the death penalty if he is convicted on any of three first-degree murder counts in the Jan. 27 death of Roxbury Correctional Institution Officer Jeffery Alan Wroten. Morris has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Circuit Judge Frederick C. Wright III scheduled a hearing on Reed's recent motions for Sept. 20, according to a written order.

One of Morris' attorneys, Washington County Assistant Public Defender Eric A. Reed, filed a motion Sept. 1 in Washington County Circuit Court asking that Morris' trial be moved.

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Since Morris faces the death penalty, he has an automatic right to a change of venue, according to Maryland law.

Morris will appear in Circuit Court on Sept. 20 for death-penalty related motions in his case, which is set to go to trial Oct. 23. In a separate motion, Reed asked that Morris' trial be postponed, saying that specialists hired to investigate Morris' background haven't had enough time to "perform an adequate investigation for the sentencing phase of the capital case."

Reed wrote that records from Morris' family have yet to be collected and only a fraction of records regarding Morris' background have been obtained.

Also, Reed wrote that he has not had enough time to prepare for the cross-examination of the state's nearly 90 witnesses, including two alleged jailhouse informants.

Washington County State's Attorney Charles P. Strong Jr. has filed responses to both motions, saying that the state "opposes repeated continuances in this matter, as the victims and the survivors of slain Correction Officer Wroten deserve a reasonably prompt conclusion of the trial portion of this proceeding."

Prosecutors have alleged Morris was admitted to Washington County Hospital for a self-inflicted wound and overpowered Wroten, who was guarding him in a fifth-floor room, before shooting the officer with his gun Jan. 26. Morris also is charged with briefly holding a hospital visitor hostage and hijacking a taxi that was waiting for another fare outside.

Morris is being held at the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center, commonly called Supermax, in Baltimore. He was serving an eight-year sentence for 2003 convictions on first-degree assault, robbery with a deadly weapon and handgun violations at Roxbury when he was hospitalized.

Reed, in his motion for a change of venue, said "no less than 42 articles have been published by The Herald-Mail" since Wroten was shot, calling those stories "inflammatory" and "prejudicial." He wrote that there has also been extensive television coverage of Wroten's death.

According to Reed's motion, since both the Maryland Division of Correction and Washington County Hospital are large employers in Washington County, the chances that someone connected to the case will be called for jury duty is high.

Strong, in his response to the change of venue motion, said Reed ignored that in Maryland, change of venue based on pretrial publicity is decided only after the prospective jury is questioned about their exposure to press and media coverage.

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