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Morris trial is moved to Howard Co.

September 26, 2006|by PEPPER BALLARD

HAGERSTOWN - A Howard County jury will hear the death penalty case against an inmate accused of killing Roxbury Correctional Institution Officer Jeffery Alan Wroten, Washington County Circuit Judge Frederick C. Wright III ordered Monday.

Howard County Circuit Judge Diane O. Leasure, the court's administrative judge, will determine which judge will preside over the trial for Brandon Travon Morris, 20, who faces the death penalty if convicted on any of three first-degree murder counts in Wroten's Jan. 27 death.

Morris was indicted Feb. 22 by a Washington County grand jury on 36 counts, including three first-degree murder charges, in Wroten's death. He pleaded not guilty and requested a jury trial.

Wright, Washington County's administrative judge, granted Morris' request that the trial be moved out of Washington County after Morris' attorneys argued Sept. 20 that he could not get a fair trial here.

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After a meeting with Morris at his bench, Wright said he found Morris exercised his right to automatic removal under the Maryland constitution.

His attorneys argued that pretrial publicity and high county employment with the Maryland Division of Correction and Washington County Hospital would prevent Morris from getting a fair trial here.

There are no state prisons in Howard County, Maryland Division of Correction Spokeswoman Maj. Priscilla Doggett said Monday.

Wroten was guarding a hospitalized Morris - then a Roxbury inmate - Jan. 26 at Washington County Hospital when police allege Morris overpowered the officer and used his revolver to shoot him in the face at about 5 a.m. Police also accuse Morris of briefly taking a hospital visitor hostage and hijacking a taxi that was waiting for a fare outside of the hospital that morning.

Wroten, 44, died the next day.

Morris is being held at the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center, commonly called Supermax, in Baltimore. Morris was serving an eight-year sentence, imposed in 2003, on assault, robbery and weapons convictions when he was taken to the hospital for what prosecutors allege was a self-inflicted wound.

Washington County State's Attorney Charles P. Strong Jr. said Monday that Wright "most likely looked at a jurisdiction that had the capacity to hear the case and a judge who could hear the case."

Howard County Circuit Court Chief Deputy Clerk Wayne Robey said Howard County has heard at least two death penalty cases originating in Howard County and one transferred from Anne Arundel County in the last five to 10 years.

Robey said that once the court receives Morris' file, Leasure will assign a presiding judge and set a status hearing or scheduling conference for his case.

Morris' Oct. 23 trial date in Washington County was vacated when his case was ordered transferred.

Wright ruled on nearly 40 defense motions Sept. 20 related to issues surrounding the death penalty, evidence sharing and victim testimony. He held off on ruling on defense motions regarding jury instruction and jury selection after making the decision to move the trial out of the county.

The three death penalty-eligible charges Morris faces are one count of first-degree premeditated murder and two counts of first-degree felony murder. One felony count alleges he killed Wroten in the course of an escape; the other alleges he killed Wroten in the course of a robbery - the theft of Wroten's service revolver.

Morris was captured less than an hour after allegedly fleeing the hospital Jan. 26. A slow-speed police chase north on U.S. 11 ended at the Federal Express Truck Lot at 14527 Industry Drive.

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