By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun
5:14 PM EST, March 1, 2012
A Baltimore jury took less than three hours to convict a 37-year-old man of first-degree murder and other charges for killing a high school student in a relative's house where the teen sought refuge after being shunned for being gay.
The quick verdict in Baltimore Circuit Court came after jurors spent part of Wednesday evening and Thursday morning discussing the case. Dante Parrish faces the possibility of life in prison without parole when he is sentenced April 3.
He was convicted of killing of 15-year-old Jason Mattison Jr., who had excelled in his studies and wanted to become a doctor.
The young victim's relatives attended every day of the trial and watched as the lead prosecutor described how Jason was suffocated with a pillowcase, slashed with a razor and stuffed into a bedroom closet. Prosecutors said Parrish left his palm print in the victim's blood on a door frame.
Jason's teacher at West Baltimore's Vivian T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy, who testified at the trial, said Thursday that he wants people to remember not the attack but his student, who would have graduated this year.
"Remember his smile," said Ryan C. Jones, who is now staff developer for the English department at Forest Park High School. "Readers will never get a chance to hear what a great voice he had, but he had a flair for shining in the moment. Look at his picture, and you know he was destined for greatness one way or another."
Two jurors reached after the trial declined to comment, as did police and prosecutors, because sentencing is pending.
The trial was particularly difficult for family members who heard sometimes painful recollections of Jason's life.
The prosecutor described the young victim as virtually homeless, going from "place to place to keep a roof over his head" and settling at his great-aunt's house on Llewellyn Avenue, where he felt comfortable.
He was in an upstairs bedroom of that house on Nov. 10, 2009, when he was attacked. Three young adults had left for a party in Cherry Hill, and the prosecutor said Jason's great-aunt and another adult had passed out after taking heroin.
Assistant State's Attorney Jennifer Hastings said a 13-year-old girl heard Mattison scream for help and managed to rouse the aunt, who opened the door to see Parrish and Jason, whose pants were below his knees.
But Hastings told the jury that Parrish ordered the aunt out, and she passed out in a nearby room without understanding what she had seen. It was then, Hastings said, that Parrish killed the boy, stuffing a pillowcase down his throat and slicing his neck with a box cutter so deeply that he cut a main artery in three separate places.
"Jason died a painful death, a slow death, and died at the age of 15, alone," the prosecutor told jurors Wednesday.
Jones, the teacher, said he had no idea that his student was in trouble outside the classroom. He knew Jason felt comfortable expressing himself at the school, where the majority of students are girls, and he said talked to him frequently, but never about his life at home.
He said that once he learned the details, he felt he had to testify in court and offer jurors a portrait of the lively, engaged and smart student he knew. "I felt I needed to be a voice for Jason," Jones said. "When he was alive, he was so outspoken, he didn't need anyone to speak for him. But after his death, there was no one else to do it."
Jones said he often thinks back, wondering whether there were any signs he missed that would have allowed him to step in to help. "It's disturbing," said Jones, who added that he learned more about Jason at the trial than he had in school. "You think you know your students. But you only know one side. The way he presented himself was in distinct contrast to his living conditions."
While Hastings said Jason felt comfortable at the house on Llewellyn, she also described it as lacking any adult supervision, where the adults were often high or drunk and there were frequent visitors. His great-aunt took in Parrish, no questions asked, because he was old family friend, even though he hadn't been seen in 20 years, the prosecutor said.
She said the family didn't know Parrish had been convicted in 1999 of killing a man in East Baltimore and sentenced to 30 years in prison. Subsequent appeals were unsuccessful until the Innocence Project helped him get a new trial in 2008, in part because of witness identification of a gun he said he had never owned.
Parrish entered an Alford plea, acknowledging there was enough evidence to convict him but maintaining his innocence. He was credited with time served and released, having served one-third of his sentence. The Innocence Project has stood by its work in his case.
Parrish's defense attorney, Bridget Shepherd, told jurors that investigators had coerced statements from flawed witnesses, failed to test evidence and tailored a case that pointed to Parrish. "This case wasn't investigated, this case was created," said Shepherd, who did not present any witnesses for the defense.
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