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Police interviews of Pryor scrutinized

March 30, 2009|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

ROCKVILLE, Md. -- A defense lawyer today questioned whether police should have interviewed Douglas Wayne Pryor while he lay in a hospital bed, hours after surgery, about two murders he is accused of committing.

The argument was made during a hearing on defense motions to suppress statements and body language by Pryor -- a prelude to a death penalty trial scheduled for May.

Pryor, 30, of Smithsburg, is facing two charges of murder for the stabbing death of Alison Munson, his ex-girlfriend, and the fatal shooting of Smithsburg Police Officer Christopher Nicholson, both on Dec. 19, 2007.

Munson, 31, the mother of Pryor's children, was found dead in her Halfway home. Police have said Pryor stabbed her to death, then drove to Smithsburg, where he confronted and shot Nicholson, 25.

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Pryor, whom police shot the night of the killings, is facing two counts of murder, plus several counts of assault and reckless endangerment.

During the first police interview in the hospital, the morning after the killings, Pryor had a breathing tube in his throat and couldn't speak.

Washington County Sheriff's Department Investigator Kenny Barnhart testified today that police asked two questions when Pryor awoke from a medically induced coma. The first question was, "Did you kill the Smithsburg police officer?" to which Pryor "shook his head 'yes.'" The second question was, "Did you mean to kill the officer?" to which Pryor "shook his head 'no.'"

Assistant Public Defender Brian Hutchison suggested that drugs used to treat Pryor might have hampered his ability to respond to police questions. Hutchison mentioned propofol, an anesthetic that he said affects mental alertness.

"He didn't seem all that impaired to me," countered Dr. Marc Kross, the surgeon in chief at Washington County Hospital's trauma division, who gauged Pryor's lucidity before letting police talk to him. Kross said patients can awaken quickly after being given propofol.

During prosecution questioning, Barnhart said investigators tried to make sure Pryor understood his rights when they returned to the hospital the next day and Pryor spoke to them.

The defense is trying to suppress Pryor's head motions in response to the two questions, as well as an audiotaped statement the next day, a statement to another inmate while in a prison hospital and a statement to a cellmate at the Washington County Detention Center.

A statement Pryor made to a sheriff's department lieutenant several weeks before the killings also is at issue.

The hearing is scheduled to continue Tuesday with sheriff's department Lt. Mark Knight as a witness.

Montgomery County Circuit Judge Louise G. Scrivener said testimony about DNA also is planned for Tuesday.

The case was moved from Washington County to Montgomery County.

The morning portion of today's proceedings centered on attempts by Barnhart and Investigator Greg Alton to speak with Pryor after the killings.

Kross and Denise Ringley, a registered nurse at the hospital, recalled Pryor's state when police arrived.

In the afternoon, county and state police officers were questioned about interviews they did in connection with the investigation.

Sheriff Douglas Mullendore testified about a memo he issued when his department -- against Hutchison's wishes -- talked to an inmate who shared a cell with Pryor. In the memo, Mullendore said the interview could have jeopardized the case and opened the department to a lawsuit; he wanted an explanation.

However, Mullendore testified, an investigator told him the interview was done, with the backing of the state's attorney's office, because the inmate requested it, rather than police initiating it.

Maryland State Police Cpl. Richard Bachtell, an investigator, said he and a colleague talked to Pryor on Dec. 27, 2007, at the Maryland Transition Center in Baltimore, a prison facility with a wing for medical care.

Pryor said early on that he had a lawyer, so Bachtell didn't talk to him about the shootings, Bachtell testified.

But having known Pryor for 20 years, and seeing he was "extremely agitated and upset," Bachtell stayed and talked with Pryor for about two hours, Bachtell said.

For the entire day of testimony, Pryor sat with Hutchison and Katy C. O'Donnell, his other attorney.

Hutchison told Scrivener the defense doesn't plan to have Pryor testify during the suppression hearing.

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