Alive on Death Row, 25 Years Later

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By Michael Frost
Capital News Service
Friday, May 1, 2009

ANNAPOLIS - Gov. Martin O'Malley is expected to sign one of the nation's most restrictive death penalty bills into law this month, but that won't affect those already sentenced to death in the state.

In fact, once the new law goes into effect, O'Malley has indicated he will put forth regulations that would allow stalled executions to resume in Maryland, including those of the five men now on death row.

John Booth-el is one of those men.

In a recent telephone interview, Booth-el talked little about the day that led to his death sentence, choosing instead to speak in general terms about "state-sanctioned murder" and the people on death row who are defined by "the worst day of their life."

Booth-el was sentenced to death in 1984 for the brutal murder of Irvin Bronstein. Irvin and Rose Bronstein were found bound and gagged, each stabbed 12 times.

According to court documents, Booth-el, a neighbor of the couple, entered the Bronsteins' home with an accomplice to steal money to buy heroin.

The law that O'Malley's signature will put into effect will limit use of the death penalty to first-degree murder cases with biological or DNA evidence, videotaped voluntary confessions or video linking defendants to a crime, none of which were present in Booth-el's case. But the law does not apply retroactively.

"Using death as a means of social control is never a good idea," Booth-el said during the interview.

Phyllis Bricker, the Bronsteins' daughter, has been waiting decades for justice to be served. May 18 will mark 26 years since her parents were murdered. Her family's life changed forever, she said.

"How could anyone feel sorry for the person who did that?" she asked.

Bricker's brother discovered the bodies when he came by to take his father to get their wedding tuxedos. Two days after that, Bricker's daughter was married.

To this day, she associates her wedding with her grandparents' death, Bricker said.

Bricker and her husband, Bill, have followed the case back and forth through the appeals process, during which time Booth-el has been sentenced to death three separate times.

Their jobs, hers for the Baltimore County Department of Aging and his as an engineer for WBAL, accommodated the frequent travel that took them to the U.S. Supreme Court and the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va.

The 4th Circuit Court reinstated the third death sentence in 2002, a ruling that stands pending further appeals. Chief Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III called the case "perhaps a textbook example of a protracted capital proceeding."

"Throughout that proceeding, the Maryland courts have not only been attentive to his rights, but have bent over backwards to protect them," Wilkinson wrote in the accompanying legal opinion.

Phyllis Bricker said her family put its faith in the justice system.

"We did what we had to do, and we did it for my parents because they deserved it," she said.

She described her father as an extremely kind man who would often go down to the Baltimore harbor to offer work to the day laborers who congregated there. He would drive them back to his shop, where he would provide a day's work and a free lunch, she said.

Bill Bricker became emotional when talking about his wife's mother.

"I loved my mother-in-law like a mother," he said.

For Booth-el, years behind bars have given him a lot of time to think about his earlier life as well.

After a "pretty normal" early childhood, things started to fall apart when his parents divorced and he was placed in foster homes, he said. He eventually turned to drugs, which led him into a "culture of crime."

"There's nothing like a death sentence to make you really think about what's important in life," he said.

For him, that means family, freedom and interaction with other human beings, embodied in the one thing he misses the most: a baby's smell. He's from a big family, he said, one in which, before he was locked up, someone always seemed to be having a baby.

Booth-el was married on June 2, 1983, he said. He was charged with murder five days later, and he and his new wife soon decided it would be too difficult to maintain their relationship under such circumstances.

He described his subsequent life on death row as a series of "regimented policies and routines designed to be demoralizing."

"Nothing really changes here from day to day," he said.

He, however, is no longer the same person he once was, he said.

"I actually got to like the person that I know that I am," he said.

In prison, he became involved in many causes, including leading initiatives to provide alternatives to violence in settling disputes, helping the elderly and creating an inmate library. He also served as president of the prison chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

He said that his involvement in such projects is due in part to selfish reasons. By helping others, he can, however briefly, take his mind off his own situation.

Booth-el gets 11 visits a month now, including some from those former babies he once held.

Along with the cacophony of noise from the other prisoners, the smells he says he misses have been replaced with the stench of prison, making family visits more akin to a funeral or a wake, he said.

Not only does the small steel, concrete and glass cubicle prevent him from touching or hugging them, it's "not much bigger than a coffin," he said.

Phyllis Bricker hasn't been able to speak to her parents since the day they were murdered, she said.

"I'd give anything to talk to my mother and father," she said.

The Brickers feel that people who have not experienced such a loss should not pass judgment on the death penalty, especially when they have never heard a word of testimony in the courtroom.

"If they came home and found their loved ones brutally murdered, would they still be concerned about the person who murdered them?" asked Phyllis Bricker.

The future of the death penalty is now in O'Malley's hands, and in the pen with which he will sign the new law and authorize regulations to bring the state's lethal injection protocol in line with existing law.

This protocol, once enacted, would end the de facto moratorium that has been in place since 2006 and allow the executions of those on death row, including Booth-el, to possibly move forward.


Copyright 2009 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism

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