A Baltimore jury found brothers James and Kareem Clea not guilty Wednesday in a murder-for hire scheme arranged by a Baltimore pastor, who was convicted last year in the plot to kill a mentally challenged man for $1.4 million in life insurance funds.
The pastor had implicated the brothers as accomplices.
"It's the only verdict they could get; [prosecutors] didn't prove [their case]," Lawrence Rosenberg, a defense attorney for James Clea, said after the ruling.
His client's knees buckled as the first "not guilty" was read into the court record, while Kareem Clea, who has been in custody since his arrest in October, let out a whoop. He tried to hug his brother but was restrained by sheriffs.
"My client said he was innocent from day one," said Kareem Clea's lawyer, James Gitomer, adding that the ruling was "exactly" as it should have been. Kareem Clea was expected to be released from jail Wednesday evening; his brother was already free on bail.
Both men were charged with conspiracy to commit murder, and Kareem Clea was also charged with carrying out the killing. They were acquitted of all counts after a two-week trial and seven hours of jury deliberation spread over two days.
The acquittals close a case that began more than 21/2 years ago, when police found the body of 37-year-old Lemuel Wallace, who was legally blind, lying in a Leakin Park restroom on the afternoon of Feb. 4, 2009. The group home resident had been shot multiple times in the head and back.
He was a "true victim," Assistant State's Attorney Robin Wherley said Tuesday during closing arguments. She appeared shaken by the jury's finding and declined to be interviewed afterward.
Her boss, Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein, issued a statement saying he was "disappointed" by the verdict but still thankful that the so-called pastor Kevin Pushia — "the man responsible for initiating the series of events" that led to Wallace's death — "is headed to prison."
The police investigation was thin, according to attorneys on both sides, and prosecutors largely relied on Pushia's testimony to make the case against the Cleas.
It was a hard sell. Pushia often appeared smug, and he talked in circles, contradicting himself from one breath to the next, leading Wherley to concede in court that he likely did not know the meaning of the words "truthful" and "honest."
And he repeatedly lied to investigators even after he was caught, defense attorneys said, claiming that it took more than a year to convict him because his story kept changing.
Pushia, who once worked at The Arc of Baltimore, pleaded guilty in August 2010 to seven counts of insurance fraud and conspiracy to commit murder in connection with Wallace's death.
It had been a tough case to break, with no viable leads for nearly two months after Wallace's body was discovered. Then an insurance adjuster called the Baltimore homicide team, asking about a policy that had been taken out on Wallace.
In a routine check, the caller wanted to ensure that a small-time pastor named Kevin Pushia, who was listed as Wallace's brother, wasn't a suspect in the killing. He wasn't, but he soon became one.
Police searched one of Pushia's properties, in the 5400 block of Parkside Place, in late April 2009 and found a chilling entry in a datebook — "LW project completed" — along with various life insurance policies for Wallace and other residents of The Arc of Baltimore, which provides services and advocacy for disabled people.
Pushia, who identified himself as a pastor at the Greater Faith Tabernacle Church of Deliverance in Baltimore, quickly confessed to the murder-for-hire plot.
He pointed to James Omar Clea III as an accomplice, claiming he had introduced Pushia to an anonymous triggerman, later identified as Kareem Clea.
James Clea, now 33, was arrested a few days after Pushia, based on the pastor's statement.
Their relationship was complicated, according to trial testimony. They met online and developed a sexual connection behind the back of Pushia's partner, who reportedly beat up the cheating pair once he discovered the affair.