Life sentence sought for suspect in Baltimore jail killing

BALTIMORE (AP) — Baltimore’s new top prosecutor, Ivan Bates, announced Friday that he’ll personally prosecute a defendant accused of strangling his deaf cellmate while awaiting trial in another murder case last year.

The case has raised significant questions about the city’s jail operations and its backlogged court system.

Javarick Gantt, a deaf man who relied on sign language to communicate, was found dead inside his cell in the Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center the morning of Oct. 9.

Weeks later, authorities announced charges against his cellmate, Gordon Staron, 34, who had been locked up since September after his arrest in the deadly stabbing of Keith Bell, 63, near a Baltimore bus stop. Jail officials have refused to answer questions about why Staron was housed with Gantt, a disabled man facing relatively minor charges.

Bates held a news conference Friday to announce he had entered his appearance in the case that morning — hoping to demonstrate his commitment to curbing rampant violence in Baltimore, which recently recorded more than 300 annual homicides for the eighth year running.

He said his office plans to seek life without parole sentences in both murder cases against Staron.

Bates, who took office earlier this month, was elected last year after defeating then-incumbent Marilyn Mosby in a Democratic primary. Most recently a high-profile defense lawyer, Bates also served as a city prosecutor before running for state’s attorney.

“I want people to know, the reason I entered my appearance is because, at the end of the day, we have to do things differently in Baltimore City,” he said. “I want the criminal element to know that I am truly on the other side, and I’m here to hold you accountable.”

He’s pledged to roll back some of Mosby’s more progressive policies, including her decision not to prosecute certain misdemeanors and minor felonies. During his campaign, Bates pledged to use low-level offenses such as drug possession and prostitution to divert people into addiction treatment and other services. He also pledged to spend more time in the courtroom than Mosby, prosecuting at least one case per year.

Gantt, 34, had been jailed since July while his cases crawled through a backlogged court system. His charges stemmed from a 2019 domestic dispute in which no one was seriously injured. But largely because he missed court dates and probation check-ins, he was ordered held without bail and remained behind bars awaiting a late October trial date.

Standing just over 5 feet tall and weighing about 105 pounds (48 kilograms), Gantt was frequently the target of bullies. Sign language was his first language; his reading and writing skills were limited. In the weeks leading up to his death, loved ones said, he expressed safety concerns about his cellmate, saying he would rather be housed alone.

Their cell door had been locked for nearly 12 hours when Gantt was found dead around 6 a.m., court records show.

“Witnesses … reported hearing deaf-mute Detainee Gantt making noises and banging on his cell door” during the night, according to charging documents. Authorities haven’t publicly identified any potential motives.

Bates acknowledged potential systemic issues connected to the case but declined to comment further, saying his office is focused on the criminal investigation.

Staron’s attorney didn’t respond to a request for comment Friday, but he recently requested a psychiatric evaluation to determine whether Staron is mentally competent to participate in his defense, prosecutors said. Staron’s next court appearance is scheduled for April.

He was identified as a suspect in the bus stop stabbing after surveillance footage showed a pickup truck fleeing the scene that was registered to his relative. When authorities arrived at a family home outside Baltimore to investigate, Staron came outside “armed with a shotgun and pocket knife,” according to charging documents.

He was later charged with first-degree murder in that case. Several weeks later, he received another first-degree murder charge in Gantt’s death.

Bates, who hasn’t prosecuted a homicide case since 2001, said it’s “like riding a bike.”

“I’m a trial lawyer, first and foremost,” he said. “I think it’s important that the prosecutors in this office recognize that … I’m here to jump on the front line when I can.”

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