By Candia Dames
WASHINGTON – Nearly two decades after the stabbing death of an elderly Baltimore couple, a federal appeals court has reinstated the death sentence of John Booth-El, who has three times been sentenced to death in the 1983 murders.
The three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the jury in Booth-El’s most recent sentencing hearing did not have to take into account the fact that he may have been drunk when he committed the crime — even though the law at the time of the murders required it.
A U.S. District Court judge had overturned Booth-El’s death sentence last April, saying that a law abolishing intoxication as a mitigating factor in death penalty cases was passed after the murders of Irvin and Rose Bronstein and should not apply to Booth-El.
But Monday’s ruling by the appellate court reversed that decision and sent the case back to the district court.
The appeals court agreed with the district court on several other issues raised by Booth-El, rejecting his claims that he had ineffective trial counsel and that jury instructions in his latest sentencing were coercive.
The Bronsteins were found dead in their Baltimore home on May 20, 1983. They had been bound and gagged and each had been stabbed a dozen times. Their house had been ransacked and some of their belongings stolen.
Monday’s ruling represented a win for the state, said Gary Bair, chief of the criminal appeal’s division in the state’s Attorney General’s Office.
It was not improper to apply the new rule on intoxication to Booth-El’s case because “it didn’t affect the substance of his defense, because the change was merely procedural,” Bair said.
Booth-El’s attorney, David Walsh-Little, said Booth-El and his attorneys were “disappointed” by the latest ruling. He said he and attorney Michael Millemann will ask the entire 4th Circuit Court to rehear the appeal and, failing that, they will appeal to the Supreme Court.
“We’re confident that the issues that were raised in John’s case have far- reaching legal affects and have the potential of impacting other cases,” he said.
The ruling was the latest in a long series of court battles for Booth-El. His first trial ended in a mistrial because prosecutors failed to turn over some evidence to defense attorneys.
Booth-El was convicted a few months later of murder, robbery and conspiracy and sentenced to death in 1984. His sentence was upheld by the Maryland Court of Appeals in 1986, but reversed the following year by the Supreme Court, which held that victim impact statements at sentencing violated Booth-El’s constitutional right to due process.
He was again sentenced to death in 1988, but the next year the Maryland Court of Appeals vacated the death sentence because the trial judge had refused to admit evidence relating to Booth-El’s parole eligibility.
Booth-El was sentenced to death a third time in 1990 and the Maryland Court of Appeals upheld that sentence.
But U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake overturned the third death sentence last year, saying that a Baltimore Circuit judge erred by refusing to instruct jurors that they could take into account that Booth-El was drunk when he killed the Bronsteins.
Walsh-Little said yesterday that Booth-El, 48, “would like the Maryland court to hold a sentencing hearing that complies with the law.”
But in a published opinion written by Chief Circuit Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III, the federal appeals court said Monday that Booth-El has been treated more than fairly by the courts.
“Booth-El’s case has become perhaps a textbook example of a protracted capital proceeding,” Wilkinson wrote. “Throughout that proceeding, the Maryland courts have not only been attentive to his rights, but have bent over backwards to protect them.”