… He could face life in prison when sentenced …
By Tricia Bishop, The Baltimore Sun
9:37 PM EDT, August 17, 2011
After less than three hours of deliberation Wednesday, a Baltimore jury found John Alexander Wagner guilty of first-degree murder and armed robbery in the stabbing of Johns Hopkins researcher Stephen Pitcairn, who was attacked last year as he talked to his mother on a cellphone while walking home from Penn Station.
Wagner could receive a maximum sentence of life in prison at a hearing set for Oct. 21. His lawyer, Assistant Public Defender Gregory Fischer, said he plans to appeal the conviction.
“Mr. Wagner has adamantly maintained his innocence from the beginning,” Fischer said.
Pitcairn’s family members, who live out of state, wept as the verdict was announced. Aunts and uncles, as well as his parents and siblings, sat vigil throughout various portions of the trial, enduring as much testimony as they could. They declined to comment after the hearing, though Pitcairn’s uncle called out, “Justice was served” as he left the courthouse.
They also praised the work of Assistant State’s Attorney Josh Felsen after the hearing, telling him to “take care of the next family as well as you took care of us.”
It was a bittersweet victory for the city prosecutor’s office. Attorneys finally won a significant conviction against Wagner, who had repeatedly escaped serious punishment despite a lengthy criminal history, but it came at the cost of a promising young man’s life.
“This victim … wasn’t bothering anyone, he wasn’t doing anything but walking to his home,” Felsen told jurors during closing arguments Wednesday.
Pitcairn was two days shy of his 24th birthday on Sunday, July 25, 2010, the day he was killed. He spent the weekend with his two sisters in New York City for an early birthday celebration, then took a Bolt bus back to Baltimore, where he performed cancer research.
But as he walked along the 2600 block of St. Paul St. talking to his mother on his cellphone, he was targeted by Wagner and his girlfriend, Lavelva Merritt — who has pleaded guilty to her role in the killing and testified for the prosecution last week. They robbed Pitcairn, stabbed him and left him to die on the sidewalk.
Pitcairn’s mother, meanwhile, frantically tried to find help from her home inFlorida after hearing the commotion. Gwen Pitcairn tearfully told jurors last week at the trial’s opening that she pleaded for her son’s safety to the voices demanding money from her son, a thousand miles away in Baltimore.
The murder was a focus of last year’s Baltimore state’s attorney race and helped challenger Gregg L. Bernstein unseat longtime incumbent Patricia A. Jessamy.
Bernstein held a campaign news conference on what would have been Pitcairn’s birthday, railing against Jessamy’s failure to keep violent repeat offenders off the streets.
“If the state’s attorney had done her job … Stephen Pitcairn might still be alive today,” Bernstein said at the time, calling the murder “not just senseless, but preventable.”
He said in a telephone interview Wednesday that his office was “extremely gratified” by the jury’s verdict.
“The defendant represents one of the focal points and objectives of our office, which is to successfully prosecute repeat violent offenders and ensure that they are incarcerated for substantial periods of time so that they do not continue to go through this revolving door and prey upon the citizens of Baltimore,” Bernstein said.
Wagner, 38, has previous convictions for assault, theft and violating probation, though he was frequently allowed to remain free. And in at least one instance, prosecutors dropped robbery charges against him despite surveillance video evidence.
Merritt, 25, has at least five convictions on her record, most for drug offenses.
The case against Wagner largely relied upon her cooperation. Testifying against Wagner, she outlined a chilling scenario in which the couple set out looking for someone to rob. They came up behind Pitcairn and grabbed him, demanding money.
Wagner stabbed Pitcairn, and Merritt punched him after he fell, according to testimony. They took his iPhone and his wallet, a Christmas gift from his mother.
On the witness stand last week, Merritt said her boyfriend regretted the act. “All that over a phone,” he reportedly said. “I didn’t mean to do it.”
Wagner’s attorney argued throughout the weeklong trial that someone else was responsible for the murder, but the jury rejected that idea. They began deliberating about 3:45 p.m. and reached a verdict by 6:30 p.m.
They asked once to review video footage of two people running from the scene, and refused an offer to leave for the day shortly before 6 p.m.
“They want to stay,” Baltimore Circuit Judge Charles J. Peters told attorneys. Within the hour, they had a verdict.
“It is clear, given the length of their deliberations, that they understood and accepted what we presented and, more importantly, what the evidence shows,” Bernstein said afterward.
Peters ordered Wagner to stay in shackles as the decision was announced, and the jurors, polled one by one, affirmed the guilty findings.
Wagner was convicted of felony first-degree murder, which means Pitcairn’s death occurred during the robbery, as well as conspiracy to commit robbery with a dangerous weapon and the robbery itself. He could be sentenced to an additional 40 years for the two robbery convictions.
He was acquitted of premeditated murder.
Merritt will likely be sentenced to 15 years in prison for conspiracy and robbery convictions under her plea deal.
The cases against the two defendants were filed and prosecuted in just over a year, representing another of Bernstein’s goals to “more quickly resolve all criminal cases” with the cooperation of the courts.
“It’s not only a function of justice delayed is justice denied, [but also that] cases do not get better with age, they get worse,” he said.
Copyright © 2011, The Baltimore Sun