Opening statements could come as early as Tuesday in the trial of two brothers accused of carrying out a murder-for-hire scheme orchestrated by Baltimore pastor Kevin Pushia, who pleaded guilty to ordering the death of a legally blind and mentally disabled man to fraudulently collect $1.4 million in life insurance.
Brothers James Omar Clea III and Kareem Jamal Clea (pronounced "klee") are each charged with conspiring to kill Lemuel Wallace, a 37-year-old group-home resident who was shot in the head on Feb. 4, 2009, and left to die in a bathroom stall at Leakin Park.
Prosecutors claim that James Clea, 33, introduced Pushia to his brother, who was then paid $50,000 in church funds by the pastor to execute Wallace. Kareem Clea, who turns 28 on Thursday, is also charged with murder and various handgun violations.
The brothers have pleaded not guilty to the charges, though James Clea has previously acknowledged helping Pushia, according to police, claiming he thought the pastor only wanted someone beaten up.
Jury selection began Monday afternoon, with about 150 potential jurors called for the high-profile case. The pool will be whittled down Tuesday.
"This is a very serious case," retired Circuit Judge John Carroll Byrnes, who's presiding over the trial, told the potential jurors, who were packed tightly in the courtroom. But, he added later, it's also "one of great interest."
The scheme shocked those who knew Pushia through his work with The Arc of Baltimore, which assists people with developmental disabilities, and the church he founded in East Baltimore in 2005, which burned down two years later.
The conspiracy was discovered after an insurance agent told police that Pushia was listed as a sibling beneficiary on Wallace's life insurance policy and asked if the pastor was a suspect in the crime. Until then, investigators had few leads.
They searched Pushia's Frankford townhouse and found numerous insurance policies for Wallace that covered accidental death, including murder, along with a planning calendar that noted "L.W. project completed" on Feb. 5, 2009, the day after Wallace was killed.
Police say Pushia confessed to the conspiracy after officers found his day planner. He pleaded guilty in August last year, admitting to using insurance funds from the church fire to pay the shooter. He could receive a maximum of life in prison at his sentencing, scheduled for mid-October.
He also confessed to meeting with the hit man, who police say is Kareem Clea, at locations arranged by James Clea, including an Applebee's restaurant at Reisterstown Road Plaza in Northwest Baltimore.
The two men hardly resemble each other. Kareem is lean and was casually dressed in court, with medium-length dreadlocks, while James, who wears his hair short, is heavier, and wore glasses and a bow tie Monday.
Online state court records show no convictions for Kareem Clea, who is being held without bail. He was charged with gun and drug possession in Baltimore County in 2007, however, and with assault and property destruction in the city a year later. Prosecutors dropped those cases before trial.
James Clea, who is free on a $250,000 bond, was on probation for armed robbery at the time of his arrest. He's scheduled for a violation of probation hearing later this week.
Both men face life in prison if convicted at their trial, which is expected to last about three days.