ANNAPOLIS – Convicted murderer Jamaal K. Abeokuto, who was sentenced to death for the murder of an 8-year-old girl, appealed to Maryland’s highest court Thursday to grant him a new trial. His lawyers argued that Abeokuto didnÕt know what he was doing when he waived his right to a jury trial.
A Baltimore County Circuit Court judge convicted Abeokuto in August 2004 of kidnapping, murder and extortion. Upon his sentencing in November by the same judge Abeokuto became Maryland’s eighth death row inmate.
Abeokuto was found competent to stand trial shortly before his conviction. But in his arguments to the court Thursday, Michael R. Braudes, Abeokuto’s lawyer, said that the judge who made the ruling, Thomas J. Bollinger, should have taken “special care” to insure that the waiver of a jury trial was an “intelligent, competent waiver” by asking questions about Abeokuto’s mental health and any medications he was taking. Braudes even suggested the defendant could have been given a jury trial despite the waiver.
Judge Alan M. Wilner had trouble accepting that argument. If Bollinger had ordered a jury trial, he said, “You’d be here arguing that the judge made a grievous error in taking away his choice.” Braudes did not disagree.
Still, Braudes persisted, Abeokuto “provisionally suffered from at least five mental health disorders,” including post traumatic stress disorder and severe anxiety disorder, which were mentioned by one doctor during the competency hearing.
And, he added, Abeokuto’s lawyer at the time was “very obviously and not very subtly pressuring” him into a trial by a judge. As records from the waiver hearing show, that lawyer said to the defendant, “You want it in front of the Judge alone, a Court trial.”
When Abeokuto waived the jury for his sentencing hearing as well, after being convicted, Braudes pointed out that “five pages of complex legalese was read to him” with “no breaks at all” to assure his understanding at a time when “any normal human being would be shocked and dazed.”
Annabelle L. Lisic, the assistant attorney general who argued against a new trial, said the state stood by Abeokuto’s classification as mentally competent, something to which a forensic psychologist testified in the competency hearing along with a diagnosis of false or exaggerated psychological symptoms.
“There is nothing in the record to indicate coercion” on the part of Abeokuto’s lawyer, she said. “Mr. Abeokuto is a very educated man,” Lisic said despite court records showing Abeokuto’s description of his education as “some college.”
“There is not an iota of evidence” to question Abeokuto’s understanding of his waiver to a jury trial, Lisic said. “We have to assume the judge knew what he was doing.” In December 2002, Marciana Ringo, the daughter of Abeokuto’s girlfriend disappeared. After her family received a ransom note, the girl was found in the woods of Harford County with her throat slashed. Abeokuto was subsequently arrested, charged and convicted of her kidnapping and murder. The trial was moved from Harford County to Baltimore County upon Abeokuto’s request. –