The two young men convicted of murdering former Baltimore City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. during an armed robbery two years ago received life sentences Tuesday. Their accomplice in the late night jazz club hold-up was sentenced to 65 years’ incarceration.
After hearing arguments from attorneys in the case and tearful pleas from Harris’ sister, mother and widow, retired Judge David Ross sentenced Jerome Williams, 17, and Charles McGaney, 22, each to a total of life plus 30 years, which took into account their robbery, assault and handgun convictions stemming from the Sept. 20, 2008, slaying.
Ross handed down the maximum guideline sentence to 22-year-old Gary Collins, who prosecutors claimed led the robbery of patrons at New Haven Lounge while Williams or McGaney shot the fleeing Harris.
Barring the success of the defendants’ appeals, the consecutive and no-parole components of the sentences for these violent crimes mean the three Northeast Baltimore men “will spend, at a minimum, decades in jail,” before parole is even a possibility, said Donald Giblin, the city’s chief homicide prosecutor.
Standing in the lobby of the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse after the four-hour sentencing hearing, Giblin said he is “absolutely satisfied” with the punishments in the high-profile case, later adding that Annette Harris, the victim’s widow, was also “very pleased.”
Earlier, she eulogized her husband to Judge Ross, saying he loved his son and daughter, who were both in court Tuesday, “with a passion that only a few children experience.”
“Kenneth loved this city because he felt there was so much to do, especially for African-American males,” Harris said, a clear reference to the defendants. She asked Ross to teach them a lesson — that the fast life is a “short-lived life” — by giving them “the stiffest sentence possible.”
A city jury deliberated a week before convicting the defendants on Oct. 8. The three-week trial featured testimony from the woman Harris was with on the night of the robbery and from the Northwood Plaza Shopping Center security guard who identified Collins and McGaney from surveillance footage police released to the media after the murder.
The defendants’ DNA was found on several articles of clothing, including a haunting Halloween mask, associated with the crime. The security guard’s identifications from Collins’ “funny walk” and a partial profile of McGaney’s face — which eventually led to the DNA matches — will be among the defendants’ grounds for appeal.
Giblin’s colleague, Cynthia Banks, asked Ross for even more prison time than the 81-year-old jurist eventually gave to Williams and McGaney. She called Williams a “menace” and listed his extensive juvenile record, including another armed robbery committed between the September 2008 Harris murder and his January 2009 arrest, as proof. She noted McGaney had just been released from jail on a handgun charge in April 2008.
Williams’ attorney, Jerome Bivens, exhorted the judge not to give up on the teenager, pointing to his school progress in jail. McGaney’s attorney, Jason Silverstein, asked for a straight life sentence, and Collins’ attorney, Janice Bledsoe, requested a guidelines sentence that took into account the jury’s not guilty finding on the murder charge, as well as the cooing toddler in the gallery, Collins’ 2-year-old daughter.
Collins was the only one of the defendants, who all appeared in collared shirts, jeans and full shackles, to speak to the judge, against Bledsoe’s counsel.
“It’s been a hard time for me going through this,” he said. “I just ask that at some point in my life I get back in that girl’s life and be the father I know I can be.”
Ross said the crimes in the case were “horrible” but declined to go beyond the sentencing guidelines, as Banks suggested. He also granted all three defense attorneys’ requests to recommend their clients for the Patuxent Youth Program for young adult offenders. The defendants showed no reaction to their sentences.
Tuesday’s proceeding, held in a fourth-floor ceremonial courtroom filled with prison guards and deputy sheriffs, contained both tense moments and long lulls.
Bledsoe spoke sharply to the judge before he denied her motion for a new trial, and she objected several times to Annette Harris’ angry comments about the defendants’ “light-hearted” demeanor at trial. As Ross was nearly finished announcing the intricacies of Collins’ sentence, a young man already being removed from the courtroom by several deputy sheriffs yelled, “Jerome, keep your head up, yo.”
But the mostly full courtroom sat anxiously still and silent for other exasperating stretches as Ross reviewed papers at the bench.
In the hallway after the sentences were handed down, Collins’ father, Barron, said he still doesn’t accept Gary was involved and called the sentence “kind of steep.” But he spoke matter-of-factly about the result.
“I guess you suffer the consequences,” he said. “At least he’ll have a chance to get out and have a chance in life.”
Addressing the defendants in court, Harris’ mother, Sylvia, said she hopes they “find that strength to rise above.”
“This is a time for change,” she said.