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Closing arguments expected today in Morris murder trial

January 17, 2008|By ERIN JULIUS

ELLICOTT CITY, Md. - The defense team for Brandon T. Morris called three witnesses to the stand Wednesday afternoon in Howard County Circuit Court, including a Washington County Hospital nurse whose testimony seemed to conflict with statements made earlier in the week by prosecution witnesses.

Morris, 22, of Baltimore, is charged with first-degree murder in the January 2006 shooting death of Roxbury Correctional Institution Officer Jeffery A. Wroten at the hospital. Morris, who faces the possibility of the death penalty if convicted of first-degree murder, also is charged with kidnapping, carjacking and other offenses stemming from the shooting, an escape and the abduction of a taxi cab driver.

The defense rested its case Wednesday and charges will be read to the jury this morning before attorneys make closing arguments.

Nurse Kristi Miller on Wednesday described turmoil on the fifth floor of the hospital the night Wroten, 44, of Martinsburg, W.Va, was shot in the face with his own gun. Miller testified she heard a commotion in room No. 5006 and heard nurse Rachael Yeagy Horner asking for help. Miller ran to Horner, and they both stood just outside the door, Miller testified.

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Through the door, she heard someone say "that's enough" or "knock it off" and she saw the soles of what she believed to be the officer's shoes, facing up as though the man were lying on the ground, Miller testified. Horner had been standing next to her, but she wasn't sure what Horner had seen, Miller told the jury.

Miller said she couldn't remember whether she and Horner started running away from the room before or after they heard a gunshot. Miller didn't dispute that Horner, within those few seconds, could have opened the door and seen Morris deliberately shoot Wroten in the head, as Horner has testified.

"I can't speak for what she seen. I'm not sure what she seen before I arrived or afterward," Miller said.

Under questioning by defense attorney Arcangelo Tuminelli, Miller refreshed her memory by reading a statement she made to investigators shortly after the incident. After reading the statement, Miller testified she felt hands on her back as she ran away from room No. 5006, and she believed the hands were Horner's.

Two other witnesses, both hospital workers, took the stand for the defense.

Diane Reid, a nursing assistant, testified she heard Horner "holler for help." Under questioning by Deputy State's Attorney Joseph Michael, Reid testified she saw Horner walk into room No. 5006 and that "Rachael definitely had the best view" of whatever happened between Morris and Wroten.

When questioned by Tuminelli, Reid reread a statement she made to investigators shortly after the shooting. Reid testified that in the statement she only mentioned seeing Horner in the hall and did not mention watching her walk all the way into the room.

Retired Anne Arundel County jurist Joseph P. Manck ruled for acquittal on one of 32 counts against Morris, that of discharging a firearm in Hagerstown. That charge was preempted by a state charge of reckless endangerment, Deputy District Public Defender Eric Reed argued.

Maryland State Trooper 1st Class Rick Bachtell, the lead investigator in the case, was the prosecution's only witness Wednesday morning.

He testified that the bullet that killed Wroten came from the .38-caliber revolver recovered by a Hagerstown police officer in the area Morris was taken into custody during the early-morning hours of Jan. 26, 2006. The trooper also testified that Morris' blood was found in a taxi allegedly carjacked by the inmate during his escape from the hospital the morning of Jan. 26, 2006.

Morris, who was serving an eight-year sentence for assault and weapons convictions at RCI, was taken to Washington County Hospital on Jan. 25, 2006, after he jammed a sewing needle into his liver, according to witness testimony.

Morris' trial was moved from Washington County to Howard County, a right granted to anyone in Maryland who faces a possible death penalty.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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