By andrei Blakely
ANNAPOLIS – In its second review of the case, Maryland’s highest court Thursday upheld the death sentence of an Anne Arundel County man for the 1993 double-murder of his fiancee and her friend at his fiancee’s home in Severn.
Bettina Gentry and Cynthia Allen were discovered at Gentry’s house with gunshot wounds to the chest and head on Dec. 30, 1993. The shots were fired during an argument between Darris Ware and Gentry, according to the court opinion.
Gentry died at the scene, while Allen died later at the hospital. Ware had lived in Gentry’s house three months before the murders occurred. No murder weapon was found.
The Maryland Court of Appeals 6-1 opinion upheld the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court’s 1999 death sentence. The dissenting vote came from Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, who wrote that testimony from a key witness for the state should have been inadmissible.
It is the second time the case has been brought before the Court of Appeals. The original 1995 trial was in Howard County, and the jury imposed the death penalty. In 1997, the Maryland Court of Appeals sent the case to Anne Arundel County Circuit Court for a new trial after an error was found in court procedures regarding undisclosed testimony.
“We won, finally,” said Frank R. Weathersbee, Anne Arundel County state’s attorney. “I think it’s always been very difficult to get death penalty convictions upheld. . . . When we ask for (the death penalty), it is justified.”
In the 1999 Circuit Court trial, the prosecution created a motive for premeditated murder by listing instances where Ware had previously assaulted Gentry. They also said Ware engaged in physical and verbal altercations with Gentry’s brother.
In asking the court for a new trial or sentencing hearing, Ware’s appeal lawyer brought up 11 points of contention ranging from the choice to have a jury trial to the constitutionality of the death penalty. The court found them invalid.
“Obviously I am disappointed,” said Michael R. Braudes, assistant public defender. “We were attacking both the convictions and sentence errors with the trial judge. The appeal is an assertion of errors by the trial judge in the ruling.”
In the opinion, Judge Irma Raker wrote that Ware was given a proper sentence reversal in his first appeal. But the second appeal was made under different circumstances.
“Maryland common law principles of double jeopardy do not bar the state from seeking the death penalty at re-sentencing,” wrote Raker. “We find no error in the trial court’s denial of the motion to preclude re-prosecution of the death penalty.”
The decision comes at a time when the death penalty is under scrutiny nationwide. In Maryland, Gov. Parris N. Glendening and the Legislature approved $225,000 for a study on the possible racial bias in death penalty convictions.
Glendening selected University of Maryland professor Ray Paternoster to conduct the study, which will be a statistical analysis of possible patterns in death penalty decisions. Of the 16 death row inmates in Maryland, 12 are black. Ware, who also is black, is the only death row prisoner from Anne Arundel County.
“The governor supports the death penalty,” said Michelle Byrnie, the governor’s deputy press secretary. “He believes that there are crimes so heinous and disturbing that they warrant the death penalty.”
But Maryland does not put people to death at the rate of other states, Byrnie said. The governor commuted the sentence of a death row prisoner in July, she said.
The next stage for the Ware case is an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, Braudes said. The defense has 90 days to file the appeal, but a decision could be years away. “I am looking at eight years,” said Weathersbee. “The case is still ongoing.” – 30- CNS-09-14-00