Judge is to decide the fate of Morris

Prosecutors seek death penalty for inmate who killed RCI officer

Prosecutors seek death penalty for inmate who killed RCI officer

January 23, 2008|By ERIN JULIUS

ELLICOTT CITY, Md. - Prosecutors on Tuesday tried to convince a judge that the man who talked with a correctional officer about "Star Wars" before shooting him in the face with the officer's own gun deserves the death penalty.

Brandon T. Morris was convicted Friday of first-degree murder, first-degree felony murder during a robbery and first-degree felony murder during an escape in the death of Roxbury Correctional Institution Officer Jeffery A. Wroten.

The verdict handed Morris by a Howard County Circuit Court jury means he could be sentenced to death.

Morris chose to be sentenced by Judge Joseph Manck, the retired Anne Arundel County jurist who presided over the case, instead of the jury that convicted him Friday.

Morris stood as he answered Manck's questions about his decision. Morris, 22, of Baltimore, had given his decision a lot of thought, he said Tuesday morning.


Through witness testimony, the state tried to show that the aggravating circumstances surrounding Morris' crimes made the death penalty an appropriate consequence, Deputy State's Attorney Joseph Michael said during his opening statement.

For a convicted murderer to be eligible for the death penalty, the murder must meet one of the aggravating circumstances under the law. Murder during a robbery or escape and murder of a law enforcement officer are aggravators.

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. He was also convicted of briefly taking a hospital visitor hostage and moments later carjacking a taxi waiting outside the hospital.

Morris had been taken to the hospital after he stuck a needle in his liver, according to testimony at his trial. At the time of the shooting, Morris was serving an eight-year sentence for armed robbery and assault.

Trooper 1st Class Rick Bachtell interviewed Morris the day Wroten was shot, he testified Tuesday. After a one-on-one interview lasting more than an hour, Bachtell taped another 20 minutes of the interview. The tape was entered into evidence but was not played in court.

Morris talked about himself during the portion of the interview that was not taped, Bachtell testified. Morris, who was supposed to be released from prison May 3, 2008, lived on the streets of Baltimore from the age of 14, he told the investigator. Morris grew up in the areas of GreenMount Avenue and Kentucky Avenue in Baltimore, Tuminelli said after court Tuesday.

Morris will not testify, but might address the judge before sentencing, the attorney said.

"My whole life has been hell," Bachtell quoted Morris as saying.

Morris also said that he and Wroten talked the night of the shooting, Bachtell testified.

"He was a nice dude," Morris said when talking about Wroten, Bachtell testified. Morris told the investigator he didn't remember the shooting. Bachtell said he had to tell Morris the officer had been shot.

"The next thing I remember, a gun in one hand, money in the other, so cold I couldn't move my fingers," Bachtell testified, quoting Morris.

Wroten's ex-wife, Tracey Wroten, took the stand Tuesday afternoon to verify pieces of information Morris told investigators he learned about Wroten during their conversation. Wroten loved the movies "Star Wars" and "Lord of the Rings," and did have five children, Tracey Wroten testified.

The defense is expected to call six or seven witnesses today to testify about Morris' background. The defense can argue that certain circumstances about the defendant make the death penalty an inappropriate punishment, Manck explained.

Tuminelli said Tuesday afternoon the defense team decided the judge would be less influenced by emotional evidence. Immediately after the verdict Friday, Morris said he preferred to be sentenced by the judge, Tuminelli said.

Wroten's younger sister, Kailyn Wroten Petty, was the first witness during the state's sentencing phase. She sobbed at times as she talked about their lives growing up in West Virginia, and gave the judge a brief synopsis of her brother's career in corrections.

She said her brother worked as a police officer in South Carolina for a while, and then worked in corrections in Florida. He served as director of a juvenile facility in Martinsburg, W.Va., before he took a job at Roxbury Correctional Institution south of Hagerstown in 2002, she said.

Petty said that when she sees Wroten's four daughters, they try to talk about the funny things that he did, but she can see the sadness in their eyes.

"They adored him" she said.

Tuminelli had no questions for Petty.

RCI Warden Roderick Sowers was in the courtroom for Tuesday morning's proceedings, and RCI staff members testified for the state.

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