Inmate's trial will be moved

September 20, 2006|By PEPPER BALLARD


The trial for an inmate charged with murder in the death a Roxbury Correctional Institution officer will be moved out of Washington County.

Circuit Judge Frederick C. Wright III granted Brandon T. Morris' request for a change of venue during a motions hearing Wednesday in Washington County Circuit Court.

Morris' attorneys argued that pretrial publicity and a large number of employees at state prisons in the county and Washington County Hospital would prevent Morris from getting a fair trial here.


Morris, 20, faces the death penalty if convicted of first-degree murder in Jeffery Alan Wroten's death.

Wroten, 44, was shot in the face while guarding Morris at Washington County Hospital on Jan. 26, police have said. Wroten died the next day. Prosecutors have alleged that Morris was hospitalized for a self-inflicted wound.

Since Morris faces the death penalty, he has an automatic right to have his case tried in another county under the Maryland constitution.

"Mr. Morris has the right to suggest - to suggest - he cannot have a fair and impartial trial in Washington County," Wright said during the hearing.

He said he found Morris "concurred" with his attorneys' arguments that he could not get a fair trial in Washington County.

Wright did not decide which county will hear Morris' case, but he said he will determine that soon. Morris was scheduled to go to trial Oct. 23.

Washington County State's Attorney Charles P. Strong Jr. said the county that gets the case will determine new trial dates.

"While we're disappointed in the immediate delay, we're fully prepared to try this case wherever and whenever in the State of Maryland," Strong said after the hearing.

Wright denied a defense motion to take the death penalty off the table. He also denied a motion from the defense to declare lethal injection cruel and unusual punishment. He granted most defense motions asking that prosecutors share evidence with Morris' defense attorneys.

Wright did not rule on motions concerning jury instruction and jury selection, saying he would send them to the court that hears Morris' case.

One of Morris' attorneys, Eric A. Reed, argued that an "extraordinary" number of newspaper and television stories were either printed or broadcast in the months since Wroten's death and could prejudice potential jurors.

He also argued that the likelihood is high that employees of the Maryland Division of Correction or Washington County Hospital would be called for jury duty in Morris' case. He argued that employees' friends and family could also potentially be called for jury duty.

Deputy State's Attorney Joseph Michael argued that the court's decision on whether to move the case to another county should be made after the jury is polled in voir dire about their knowledge of the case.

Based on Reed's arguments, Wright at first said, "I think what you're asking me to do may be giving the community a short shrift."

He said members of the community have a right to a fair trial, too.

Wright said the voir dire would allow prospective jurors to say whether or not they're biased.

"What you're saying is these people can't be trusted," he said.

Reed argued that Washington County residents "are aware of what's happened. Even if they say they can be fair ... They're more likely to be fair somewhere else."

Wright called Morris to the bench. Michael and Strong stood to Morris' left, while his attorneys, Reed and Maryland Acting Deputy Public Defender Michael Morrissette, stood to his right. A correctional officer stood guard.

Dressed in denim prison clothing and bound in handcuffs, Morris leaned forward, but what he said could not be heard beyond those standing before the judge. The group returned to their seats, leaving Wright sitting with his head bowed.

After a short pause, Wright explained that he felt Morris exercised his right to removal under the Maryland constitution.

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