A year ago, when Maryland became the 18th state to abolish the death penalty, it changed the stakes for an accused killer sitting in the Prince George’s County jail.
Darrell Bellard, 47, might have been the first defendant sent to the state’s death row in more than a decade. Instead, prosecutors are trying to send the Texas man — who they say fatally shot two women and two young children over a stash of marijuana — to prison for life.
In a trial that began this week in Prince George’s Circuit Court, prosecutors said Bellard came to Maryland from Texas City with his 18-year-old girlfriend in August 2010 to sell thousands of dollars’ worth of pot.
Dawn Brooks, 38, prosecutors say, was a relative whose son was helping Bellard sell the product. When a cooler filled with pot disappeared at her Lanham area apartment, prosecutors say, Bellard engaged in a horrific interrogation that devolved into slaughter.
He shot Brooks in the leg, prosecutors say, and then shot and killed her sister-in-law, 41-year-old Mwasiti Sikyala, in an attempt to learn where the pot had gone. Because Brooks could not or would not tell Bellard, he allegedly killed her and her two young children while his girlfriend blocked the door.
“When you murder an innocent child, you forfeit all that makes you human,” Assistant State’s Attorney Wes Adams told the jury in his opening statement.
Behind Adams flashed grisly photographs of the four bodies as police found them the night of Aug. 6, 2010. Brooks was facedown on the living room floor. Brooks’s children, Shakur Sikyala, 4, and Shayla Sikyala, 3, lay on a bed in the next room with their aunt.
The decision to pursue a capital murder case against Bellard was one of the first State’s Attorney Angela D. Alsobrooks made after taking office in 2011. “It took no time at all,” she said. In a county where brutal killings are all too common — there were 93 homicides in Prince George’s that year — the massacre, she said, was “one of the most heinous cases I have ever seen.”
A homicide investigator testified Thursday that Bellard confessed to the killings during an interrogation.
During cross-examination, defense attorneys asked whether Bellard complained about being hungry, claustrophobic or tired as he was questioned. The investigator said Bellard was fed and was given other breaks when he asked for them.
Bellard’s then-girlfriend T’Keisha Gilmer, now 21 and a key prosecution witness, has pleaded guilty and faces life in prison. She is expected to testify in coming days.
Ben Tela, Mwasiti Sikyala’s common-law husband of 23 years, said in an interview that he is disappointed that, if convicted, Bellard will not face the possibility of a death sentence. “I would have liked to have him pay the price for what he did,” said Tela, who has two daughters from the marriage, both in college now.
It was Tela who called 911 on the night of the killings. He testified that he arrived at home and discovered that Sikyala was not in bed. He went to look for her in the attached apartment where her brother’s family lived and found his sister-in-law’s body.
This week, the office of Gov. Martin O’Malley — a Catholic and longtime opponent of the death penalty — reiterated arguments made during the debate over repeal last year.
“The death penalty is expensive, it doesn’t serve as a deterrent and there is a history of racial bias in how it’s administered,” a spokeswoman for O’Malley said. (A 2004 study found racial and geographic disparities in the state’s application of the death penalty). Repeal has freed up money for public safety, she added.
Maryland last executed a prisoner in 2005. Before repeal, there had been a de facto moratorium on executions since 2006 because the state lacked court-approved regulations for lethal injection.
In 2009, in light of concerns about wrongful convictions, Maryland lawmakers limited the death penalty to cases with DNA evidence or a recorded confession. The first death row inmate in the United States to be exonerated by DNA evidence — Kirk Bloodsworth, in 1993 — came from Baltimore.
The last person to face a possible death sentence in a Prince George’s case was Trone Ashford, who in 1998 killed two employees of a Dunkin’ Donuts before setting the shop on fire. Alsobrooks said that the jury nearly sentenced Ashford to death but that a lone holdout forced a sentence of life without parole.
Five prisoners from earlier cases remain on death row in the state. The repeal does not apply to them, and O’Malley has been under pressure to commute their sentences. Some of those prisoners have been in limbo for decades.
Bellard’s trial is expected to continue into next week.