Baltimore City State’s attorney Ivan Bates to try man charged for murdering cellmate

ATTORNEY

BALTIMORE — Baltimore’s new top prosecutor, Ivan Bates, will try a man accused of murdering his cellmate at the city’s Central Booking and Intake facility.

Bates announced on Friday that he will personally prosecute a defendant accused of strangling his deaf cellmate while awaiting trial in another murder case last year.

Gordon Staron Jr., 34, of Harford County, is charged with first-degree murder after prosecutors alleged that he killed cellmate Javarick Gantt. Gantt was found dead inside their cell at Central Booking on Oct. 9, 2022, the Baltimore Banner reported.  

Staron was already incarcerated for the fatal stabbing of a man in the 1400 block of East Monument Street at a bus stop. 

Assistant State’s Attorney Tonya LaPolla said the state intends to seek life without the possibility of parole.

Bates will try the case—has raised significant questions about the city’s jail operations and its backlogged court system—alongside veteran city homicide prosecutor Tonya LaPolla.

“The same work she does, I’ll sit right there and do. The same trial preparation, I’ll be right there doing,” Bates said. “To me, it has to start at the top. You have prosecutors going to trial every week on murder cases. We need help.”

Staron 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.

“Here, you have a suspect who’s alleged to have committed two separate murders, one on an older adult and one on a vulnerable adult,” Bates said, in explaining why he took the case.  

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.

“I think it’s important that the prosecutors in this office recognize I see them on the front lines. And, I’m here to jump in the front line when I can,” Bates said. “I don’t just have your back, I’m standing beside you as we fight crime together.”  

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, 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.

A spokesperson for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services said the department launched an administrative review of the Gantt death. DPSCS spokesperson says the administrative review “remains open and active.”  

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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Paul Gessler contributed to this story.

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