Lawyers see trial's location as a life-or-death issue

Crime, Law and JusticeJustice SystemDeathCrimeTrials and ArbitrationBaltimore CountyPublic Transportation Disasters

The night Philip E. Parker Jr. was killed, the crime scene was on the move.

As a prison bus rumbled through the darkness on a winter night, passing through four Maryland counties and into Baltimore on a 75-mile trek to the city's Supermax prison, Parker was strangled and left slumped between rows of seats.

A fellow inmate was charged in Baltimore County with murder, which suggests that investigators believe the crime occurred there. But attorneys for the man, Kevin G. Johns Jr., say Parker likely died elsewhere - and legal observers say a judge's ruling could be a matter of life and death.

"Baltimore County seeks the death penalty much, much, much more frequently than any other venue, so certainly on the defense side, you don't want to be in Baltimore County," said Byron L. Warnken, a University of Baltimore law professor.

The death penalty is never mentioned in court papers challenging Baltimore County prosecutors' right to try Johns, 22, but it lurks under the surface.

In 2002, researchers from Columbia, Rutgers and New York universities ranked Baltimore County second among large counties nationwide in the rate at which convicted murderers are sentenced to death. A University of Maryland study released a year later found that the county dominates the state in death-penalty cases and that prosecutors there are 13 times more likely to seek the death penalty than are prosecutors in the city.

"The stakes are very high for Mr. Johns," said Douglas Colbert, a University of Maryland law professor.

A hearing to determine which jurisdiction should try the case was originally scheduled for last month but was delayed because of the illness of one of Johns' lawyers. Last week, Baltimore County Circuit Judge Thomas J. Bollinger postponed the matter until the first week of January and set a trial date for July 31.

While Johns' case might seem an apt one for any prosecutor to consider seeking the death penalty - he has previously been convicted of two murders, one inside and one outside prison - the decision for many jurisdictions often comes down to a question of resources, court observers say.

In other areas, "there are so many factors that enter that decision," Colbert said.

William C. Brennan Jr., one of Johns' lawyers, would not comment beyond the court filings in the case.

Evidence conflicts Exactly what led authorities to choose Baltimore County as the place to charge Johns is unclear. Prosecutor S. Ann Brobst said there is "ample evidence" that Parker was killed in Baltimore County, but she would not discuss the specifics.

A termination notice for one of the correctional officers involved in the transport notes that "the trip proceeded without apparent incident" until the bus reached the area of Security Square Mall in the county, where one officer said he saw Johns switch seats "and became suspicious that there was a problem."

Johns and Parker, 20, were among more than 30 inmates and five correctional officers on the bus as it traveled along Interstate 70 from the Maryland Correctional Training Center near Hagerstown to the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center, also known as Supermax, during the early-morning hours of Feb. 2.

Johns' lawyers argue in court filings that the strangling likely took place in Howard County - although they also point to statements from inmates on the bus that alternately place the act in Washington, Frederick and Howard counties.

Johns said in an interview with authorities that the attack took place about 15 minutes after the bus left the Hagerstown prison, according to a defense brief.

Evidence points to the attack taking place before the bus reached Baltimore County, making that jurisdiction the wrong venue for the case, the lawyers wrote.

Case is 'trickier' What makes the case unusual is the lack of certainty about the most basic of details, legal observers say.

"Your normal murder occurs within a particular boundary, on a street corner or in a person's home - not in a moving vehicle - so it's very clear where the crime scene is," said defense attorney Margaret Mead, who unsuccessfully argued a decade ago to have a client's trial moved to Baltimore City based on similar circumstances. When a moving car or bus is involved, "that's when it gets trickier."

In Mead's previous case, a woman was fatally stabbed in 1995 while traveling from the city to the county on northbound Interstate 83. Two women were charged after they were seen dumping the body of 30-year-old Myra Harrison in northern Baltimore County.

Mead said it would have been better for her client, Latina Rose Smith, to be tried by a city jury. Her client was not facing the death penalty but was afraid of facing a Baltimore County jury, she said.

"I think it was a better jury pool [in the city] to have listen to the dynamics between these women," she said.

Previous case set mark But Mead lost her motion at the Baltimore County Circuit Court level and, later, in a reported opinion by the Court of Special Appeals that set the benchmark for determining venue in a case - allowing the state to use a less stringent standard of proof to determine where a case should be tried.

The state only has to show that the crime occurred "close enough to the county boundary" when the evidence is ambiguous, Colbert said.

To prevail in the Johns case, the defense will have to prove a timeline of events and the location of each, Mead said.

"What's going to be hard is getting any precise location of where death occurred," she said.

Inmate made threat Parker's mother, Melissa Rodriguez, said she worries that people have forgotten her son as the focus shifts to Johns.

The day before Parker's death, Johns said in open court that he would likely kill again if he didn't get the psychiatric help he needed. He was sentenced to life without parole for the death of his 16-year-old cellmate at a hearing in which Parker was called to testify on his behalf.

Several correctional officers were fired or disciplined after the killing on the bus.

Parker, who was serving a three-year sentence for unarmed robbery at the time of his death, had about 15 months left before his release, his mother said.

'I just want it done' Rodriguez would not say whether she was in favor of the county's decision to seek death for Johns but said she doesn't want the case to move now. Doing so would take away the Baltimore County-based support system she has come to rely on, she said.

"It already started there. I know the people there, and I feel comfortable with them," she said. "I just want it done and over with."

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