Morris found guilty of murder

Inmate could receive death penalty in slaying of correctional officer

Inmate could receive death penalty in slaying of correctional officer

January 19, 2008|By ERIN JULIUS

ELLICOTT CITY, Md. - Brandon T. Morris was found guilty Friday of first-degree murder in the January 2006 shooting death of Roxbury Correctional Institution Officer Jeffery A. Wroten.

The verdict qualifies Morris, 22, of Baltimore, for the death penalty. The trial's sentencing phase begins Tuesday.

Wroten's ex-wife and one of his five children were among those in the nearly-full Howard County Circuit courtroom as the jury's foreman read the verdict.

Morris showed no reaction, even after guilty verdicts for three capital offenses were read. He also was convicted of first-degree felony murder during a robbery and first-degree felony murder during an escape.

The maximum penalty for each of the murder convictions is death.

Morris shot Wroten, 44, of Martinsburg, W.Va., in the face with the officer's gun during the early-morning hours of Jan. 26, 2006, at Washington County Hospital, where Wroten was guarding the inmate.


When word of the conviction reached RCI, the staff generally was pleased with the verdict and thought the jury did the right thing, a correctional officer said.

Because the murder convictions make Morris eligible for the death penalty, he must decide whether the judge or the jury will determine his sentence. Morris was not prepared to make that decision Friday afternoon, defense attorney Arcangelo Tuminelli told the judge.

The jury, which reached its verdict after about eight hours of deliberations, is expected to reconvene Tuesday at 9 a.m.

At the defense's request, the trial was moved from Washington County to Howard County, a right granted to anyone in Maryland who faces a possible death penalty.

Morris also was convicted of robbery for stealing Wroten's gun, first-degree escape, first-degree assault of Wroten, using a handgun during the commission of a felony and disarming a correctional officer.

He also was convicted of kidnapping, first-degree assault, attempted armed robbery, armed carjacking and other crimes in connection with the kidnapping of a hospital visitor and the carjacking of a taxi outside the hospital.

Outside the courthouse Friday, Tuminelli said the verdict was disappointing, but understandable, because of the extensive evidence presented. The defense team is preparing for the sentencing phase, Tuminelli said.

Sentencing hearing

Both the state and the defense will call witnesses next week during the sentencing hearing.

The presiding judge, Joseph Manck, a retired Anne Arundel County jurist, ruled Friday afternoon about what evidence could be presented during the sentencing phase.

Morris has prior criminal convictions in Maryland and Virginia. Prosecutors will not be allowed to present the facts of the underlying cases to the jury, only the charges of which Morris was convicted, Manck ruled.

Morris was serving an eight-year sentence for armed robbery and assault at the time of Wroten's death.

Attorneys argued at length during a motions hearing Friday whether prosecutors would be allowed to present evidence about an escape attempt by Morris from a Howard County Circuit courtroom in May 2007. During jury selection, Morris tried to bolt from the room. The judge present during the attempt recused himself, and the trial was postponed several months.

Prosecutors would be allowed to present evidence about the escape, but must be careful, Manck said. Another member of the defense team, Harun Shabazz of the Office of the Public Defender, may take the stand to testify as a witness to the escape attempt.

Manck called the issue of a defense attorney testifying on behalf of his own client a "ripe issue for appeal." Tuminelli earlier called the situation a "can of worms" and said that as the defense attorney, Shabazz's credibility as a witness could be diminished.

The judge will not allow the state to show video of, or present testimony about, Morris making lewd gestures and spitting at local media.

Morris, who showed no emotion in the courtroom, was disappointed by the finding of guilt on the capital charges, the defense attorney said.

Tuminelli has handled five state capital cases and one federal capital case, he said. His cases never have resulted in the death penalty, he said.

The death penalty should be reserved for only the most egregious cases, and Morris' case doesn't qualify, Tuminelli said.

Morris' childhood and background put him on an uneven playing field, his defense attorney said.

"He didn't have the chances a lot of other people had," Tuminelli said.

If Morris is sentenced to death, he would join five other prisoners on Maryland's death row. Executions in Maryland have been suspended, though, since the state's highest court ruled in December 2006 that Maryland's lethal-injection procedures weren't properly adopted. Gov. Martin O'Malley, who opposes the death penalty, hasn't proposed new procedures to the General Assembly.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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