Pair Get Life Plus 30 Years in Harris Murder; Third Man Gets 65 Years

… Ex-city councilman was shot during robbery of Baltimore jazz club …

baltimoresun.com

By Nick Madigan, The Baltimore Sun

9:53 PM EDT, October 19, 2010

Two men convicted of killing a former city councilman during the robbery of a Northeast Baltimore jazz club were sentenced Tuesday to life in prison plus 30 years. A third defendant received a 65-year term.

Jerome Williams, 17, and Charles Y. McGaney, 22, were given life terms for their convictions this month on charges of first-degree felony murder, assault and other counts in the 2008 robbery during which Kenneth N. Harris was killed. A legal expert said that given their murder convictions, Williams and McGaney are unlikely to be paroled unless the governor approves — a rare occurrence.

The third man, Gary A. Collins, 22, was convicted of assault and other counts, but was acquitted of murder. Collins, who prosecutors alleged was the ringleader, could be eligible for parole after serving about half of his 65-year sentence.

“Let justice be done,” Harris’ sister, Naomi Conaway, told the court before sentencing, her face lined with tears. “Let these guys go away forever, as long as possible.”

The victim’s mother, Sylvia Harris, looked at the defendants and said, “I only wish that you guys could have known him, even for a short time.”

Finally, Harris’ widow, Annette, described him as a “loving husband and a great father to our children.” She spoke of his legacy of helping the disadvantaged, of trying to steer men away from lives of crime.

“It saddens me to stand here and speak to the same young males he tried to help,” Annette Harris said. “I never thought he would end up as one of those statistics.” She said her husband had been “a defenseless victim that night who was gunned down, shot in the back.”

She spoke out against the defendants’ conduct during the trial and criticized them for blowing kisses at family members in the courtroom.

“I felt they thought it was a joke, the whole situation,” she said. “I don’t think the situation would be so lighthearted if it was one of their loved ones who was gunned down.”

The only defendant to address the judge was Collins, whose girlfriend and 2-year-old daughter were in the courtroom.

“It’s been a hard time,” he said quietly. “I’ve been praying and hoping that someday I get a chance to get back to my little girl. … I just ask that at some point I can get back into her life and be the father that I know I can be.”

Collins said everyone in the case — the Harris family, the defendants’ families — is “hurting from this.”

In handing down the sentences, retired Baltimore Circuit Judge David Ross said he would try to keep to his custom of looking each defendant in the eye but acknowledged that the complexity of the 29-count verdict sheet might make that impossible. The 81-year-old judge stumbled several times during the lengthy sentencing process and apologized to the courtroom.

Ross followed prosecutor Cynthia M. Banks’ recommendation for a 65-year sentence for Collins, but said there was no reason to go beyond the guidelines and agree to her suggestion that Williams and McGaney receive terms of life plus 250 years.

The judge acceded to defense lawyers’ requests that he recommend that the defendants be incarcerated in the Patuxent Institution, a maximum-security facility in Jessup that emphasizes psychotherapy for young offenders, particularly those who demonstrate antisocial and criminal behavior. There is no guarantee they will be sent there.

Almost obscured behind a row of bailiffs and corrections officers, the three defendants, shackled and handcuffed, did not appear to react to the sentences. Williams, the youngest, chewed gum throughout the hearing, which lasted for most of the morning. As the judge recited the sentences for each defendant, a bailiff ejected Williams’ stepfather, Tyrone Smith, and two young men seated near him, apparently for talking.

Outside the courthouse after the hearing, Smith expressed condolences to the Harris family. “It’s a tough situation all the way around,” he said as he walked away.

Minutes later, the three defendants were led out of the building through a side door and into a blue van operated by the Division of Pretrial Detention and Services. Several of their relatives crowded around the van, tapping the windows and shouting encouragement and expressions of affection. A corrections officer shooed them away.

Before the court session, defense attorney Jerome Bivens, who represented Williams, seemed to expect a long sentence and said he would appeal the conviction. He said the state’s presentation of “mixtures and composites” of DNA evidence linking the defendants to crimes at the New Haven Lounge “raises evidentiary issues as well as scientific issues.”

Bivens speculated that the jury found both Williams and McGaney guilty of murder — even though one fired the fatal shot — because Williams’ DNA was found on a Halloween mask a witness said the shooter was wearing, while McGaney was seen in a surveillance video carrying the mask in his hands as the trio walked toward the jazz club.

Prosecutors said Collins held a gun to the club owner’s head and forced him inside during the robbery, but that gun was apparently never fired.

Harris’ death stunned city residents who had looked up to him as a poor boy made good, a positive antidote for those who believed that a difficult upbringing in a rough neighborhood precluded success in the corridors of power.

Since the beginning, the killing of Harris prompted contention. Six weeks after the crime, his family and supporters expressed impatience with the pace of the investigation. Harris’ widow called on police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III to reveal the progress of the investigation and suggested that police brass and detectives might not be serious about finding the killer.

Conspiracy theories mounted, most anchored in the idea that the robbery had been merely a pretext for the murder of Harris, who, in this telling, had run afoul of unnamed and deadly power brokers.

Harris, who served two terms on the City Council but lost a bid for its presidency in 2006, had been accompanied that evening by a woman whose identity became publicly known only when she took the witness stand on the first day of testimony in the trial of his accused killers.

The prosecution’s case relied greatly on DNA evidence and on surveillance images that a security guard said positively identified two of the defendants.

Some of the most compelling evidence in the trial came from Keith Covington, owner of the New Haven Lounge, where Harris had shown up after closing time to borrow a corkscrew for a bottle of wine he apparently intended to share with his female companion. On the stand, Covington recalled emerging from the club and, as he walked Harris to his car, being confronted by men with guns, screaming orders and obscenities.

The ex-councilman ignored the assailant’s orders, said the bar owner, who recalled hearing a shot as he was being forced inside by a second gunman. It was that shot, prosecutors said, that killed Harris after he had hurriedly climbed into the driver’s seat of his Toyota.

The car lurched forward, a witness said, eventually mounting a sidewalk and almost hitting a tree. The woman in the passenger seat, Monica Dormel Foreman, covered in blood and broken glass, was screaming for help, the witness said, as Harris slumped in his seat, bleeding.

Meanwhile, Covington, a gun at the back of his head, was led to his office by one of the robbers, while another — joined seconds later by the man in the mask — can be seen in a surveillance video holding up the bartender and several staff members who had remained in the club for a meeting.

Covington said he was forced to open the safe, which held nearly $2,000, the night’s proceeds. The robbers, angry that there was not more cash, went through his pockets, taking cash and a money clip. As the three men ran out the building’s rear door, Covington grabbed a gun he kept in a drawer and fired three shots, hitting no one.

Covington said he did not find out that Harris had been killed until later, after police had been summoned.

Far from being passive about the investigation, police dubbed the case a “red ball,” a high-priority definition that allowed several detectives unlimited overtime to pursue leads. Despite the apparent urgency, Bealefeld said a few weeks after the incident that the department had received almost no helpful tips from the community.

But, unknown to the public, detectives had gotten a break in the case only hours after the crime, when a purse stolen from a woman at the club turned up in a trash can nearby. It contained Covington’s money clip as well as bandanas and surgical gloves that DNA analysis showed had been worn by the defendants.

Traces of Williams’ DNA also were found on the Halloween mask and another pair of gloves discarded in an alley.

nick.madigan@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2010, The Baltimore Sun

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