- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 29, 2007

HAGERSTOWN, Md. A circuit court judge refused yesterday to strike the state’s notice of intent to seek the death penalty for a state prison inmate charged in the slaying of a correctional officer.

Howard County Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney ruled that the de facto moratorium on executions established by a December Maryland Court of Appeals decision doesn’t preclude prosecutors from pursuing the death penalty.

Attorneys for defendant Brandon T. Morris, 21, had argued during a hearing Friday in Ellicott City that unless the death penalty notice were stricken, Morris would be denied due process because he would be tried without knowing what punishment he may face if convicted of killing Correctional Officer Jeffery A. Wroten in 2006.

The Maryland Court of Appeals imposed a moratorium on executions in December when it ruled in the case of death-row inmate Vernon Evans Jr. that the state’s lethal injection procedures hadn’t been properly adopted. The protocol must either be approved by a joint legislative committee or exempted by law from such review, the high court ruled. A bill that would have exempted the state from the review was voted down in a House committee this year.

Judge Sweeney rejected a defense argument that because Maryland’s death sentence is no longer a legal, enforceable sentence, the notice of intent to execute Morris should be stricken.

“The Evans case does not sweep as far as defendant contends, and there is no indication that the Court of Appeals intended to impose a general moratorium on the bringing of death penalty cases,” Judge Sweeney wrote.

Members of Morris’ defense team didn’t immediately return telephone calls from the Associated Press inquiring whether they will appeal the ruling.

Jury selection is scheduled to begin tomorrow in Ellicott City for Morris’ trial on charges he fatally shot Officer Wroten with the officer’s gun. Officer Wroten was guarding Morris’ room at Washington County Hospital in Hagerstown on Jan. 26, 2006. Officer Wroten, 44, of Martinsburg, W.Va., worked at the nearby Roxbury Correctional Institution.

A similar motion is pending in Harford County Circuit Court in the first-degree murder case of an inmate accused of strangling another inmate aboard a state prison bus.

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