As violence gripped the border of Baltimore's Southwestern and Western police districts two Decembers ago, police thought Stanley Brunson was at its heart: He had been shot and was out for revenge, they said.
But when he shot Darnell Edwards in what police said was a retaliatory act, Brunson accidentally hit his friend Donte Collins as well, killing him, a prosecutor said Thursday at Brunson's murder trial.
"Bullets don't come with names on them," the prosecutor, Traci Robinson, said.
Collins was among many killed at the end of 2011, a period that saw four fatal shootings clustered on the border of the two police districts in a single week. Then-Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III pointed to an attack on Brunson as a possible cause describing him as "an engine for violent crime" and a "legend" in his neighborhood for avoiding previous charges.
Robinson acknowledged in court Thursday that her case would be challenged by the reluctance of people to testify about what happened. She said the trial would pit "the code of the street" against the law. "You don't co-operate with law enforcement," she said. "Everybody knows you handle your business on the street."
Laying out the evidence in the case, Robinson told jurors that witnesses commonly change their story on the stand. But Gil Amaral, Brunson's public defender, countered that witnesses are more honest in court, faced with the full gravity of the situation and penalties for giving false testimony.
"Nine times out of 10, they're going to tell the truth," he said.
Edwards, 34, convicted in 2003 for his role as a lieutenant in a major Baltimore heroin ring, followed the "code," Robinson said. He told investigators he knew nothing about the shooting, she said, even though it landed him in Maryland Shock Trauma Center with multiple bullet wounds.
Still, court records show he has been summoned to testify in the case.
According to the evidence police gathered, Brunson, 36, also known as Cracker, was walking with Collins near North Rosedale and Brighton streets on the evening of Dec. 19, 2011. They saw Edwards and started to chase him.
But as Brunson opened fire, he accidentally shot 29-year-old Collins in the back, Robinson said.
Brunson fled, she added, but returned to his wounded friend and offered "words of encouragement" as he lay dying, then ran off again at the sound of approaching sirens.
When police arrived, Collins was lying on his stomach, barely conscious and "gasping for air", investigator Owen Ray testified. He was declared dead at Maryland Shock Trauma Center within an hour. A crime scene technician told jurors that police found nine 9 mm bullet casings at the scene and one fired bullet.
Edwards, meanwhile, found someone to take him to St. Agnes Hospital, and from there he was taken to Shock Trauma.
Baltimore police do not usually release the names of shooting victims who are not killed, but said at the time that Brunson had been shot Dec. 15, 2011, just a few days before he allegedly attacked Edwards and killed Collins.
Robinson said Brunson told police that his hand was in a cast at the time of the shooting, so he could not have fired a gun. But further investigation showed that his hand was in a splint and capable of wielding a weapon, Robinson added.
Amaral did not lay out his own version of the incident but told jurors that evidence would poke holes in the prosecutors' theory.
Brunson sat by Amaral's side as the trial began, with members of his family just a few feet behind in the small courtroom. A twice-convicted drug dealer who was also shot in 2003, Brunson had avoided convictions on numerous other charges — including attempted murder — brought against him.
Bealefeld singled out Brunson during an interview with The Baltimore Sun after Collins had been killed, but before Brunson had been charged in connection with the attack. He said police needed to build careful cases against people like him.
"These guys like Stanley Brunson and others, they're legendary in their neighborhood," he added. "Legendary for being out on the street and being the engine for violent crime in their neighborhoods. The fact is, they shouldn't get the opportunity to stay out there and become legendary."