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Inmate’s troubled life raised to persuade against death row

- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 24, 2008

ELLICOTT CITY, Md. (AP) — Brandon T. Morris' slide toward death row began with his birth to a teenage mother into a world of violence, sexual abuse, drugs and pervasive crime, a social worker testified at his sentencing yesterday.

Defense attorneys presented Morris' lengthy social history in hopes of persuading the judge that the state inmate deserves life imprisonment instead of death for murdering Correctional Officer Jeffery A. Wroten while escaping from Washington County Hospital in Hagerstown two years ago.

Judge Joseph P. Manck, a retired Anne Arundel County jurist who is hearing the case in Howard County, said he will announce his decision Monday. Attorneys were set to give closing arguments today.

Clinical social worker Lori Townes, in more than two hours of testimony, said Morris was fathered by a Suffolk County, Va., man with a long criminal history. He was raised in and around Baltimore by a promiscuous, mentally ill mother, Miss Townes said.

Small for his age, Morris was bullied by bigger boys and picked up change on street corners to support his younger sister and brother, Miss Townes said. She said the family lived in the drug-infested Barclay and Midtown neighborhoods, where "the children had seen murders; the children had witnessed violence."

When Morris was 12 or 13, the family moved outside the city to Woodlawn, where Morris befriended an older boy, who apparently raped him, Miss Townes said.

Sleeping sometimes on the street, sometimes at home and sometimes at his maternal grandmother's house, Morris completed ninth grade before making his way to the Newport News, Va., area where he lived with his incarcerated father's pot-smoking girlfriend before committing a number of offenses at 15 that resulted in detention, Miss Townes said.

She said he ran away from a group home and returned in 2002 to Baltimore. There, he robbed a Fuddrucker's restaurant at gunpoint, resulting in his incarceration in 2003.

Earlier yesterday, Morris' half-brother Edward J. Green, 18, of Baltimore, told reporters outside the courthouse that Morris is a victim of poverty, a failed prison system and the racial divide.

"He never had no family structure or nothing like that," Mr. Green said. "He just basically ran the street, trying to take care of me and my sister."

Mr. Green added: "A lot of people can't understand my brother because they're not black. They haven't really been through the things he's been through."

He said Morris was a "victim" of the state Division of Correction because it failed to keep him safe. Morris was a hospital patient when he shot Officer Wroten, 44, in the head with the officer's service revolver Jan. 26, 2006. Morris had been brought to the hospital from nearby Roxbury Correctional Institution for removal of a sewing needle that the defense has conceded he had jabbed so deeply into his abdomen that it pierced his liver.

Defense witness Hope Hill, a Howard University psychologist, testified that many homes in Morris' childhood neighborhoods contained high levels of lead paint, which can result in delayed mental development and retardation in children who have eaten paint chips off peeling walls and radiators.

"Lead begins to wear away at the brain, and it just deprives the child of any potential," Miss Hill said.

A jury convicted Morris on Friday of three counts of first-degree murder for Officer Wroten's slaying, plus 19 other counts, including kidnapping hospital visitor Tina M. Bussard and taxi driver Frank L. Fultz, who was forced at gunpoint to drive Morris into nearby Pennsylvania. The cabbie deliberately crashed into a concrete barrier, and Morris fled back into Maryland, where he was captured in an industrial park.

Morris was serving an eight-year sentence for assault, robbery and handgun convictions before the slaying. He had been scheduled for release in May 2008.

The trial was moved out of Washington County at Morris' request, which was his right as a Maryland capital murder defendant.