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Jury finds Clea brothers not guilty in contract killing

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.

That led Pushia, 38, to plot a retaliation beating, the pastor said on the witness stand, adding that he eventually dropped the idea to focus on fraud and murder.

A website for Pushia's church calls him a "saint" who was given a vision by God. He claims to have long lived a religious life, having been "called to preach God's word" when he was 15. The church opened its doors in 2005, and burned down two years later.

Pushia denied setting the fire but said he used the insurance money to pay Wallace's killer, whose name he didn't know despite several meetings, $50,000 for the shooting. He also dipped into the money to pay his own bills, writing a $15,500 check to his lawyer on the church's account after being arrested, according to Kareem Clea's attorney.

Kareem Clea, 28, was arrested in October after a witness selected his image from a police photo array as looking like the man who picked up Wallace the morning of Feb 4, 2009. Pushia testified that Kareem was the triggerman during the trial.

But attorneys for the Cleas called Pushia a despicable liar and con artist who was desperate to place blame on others in the hopes it would lead to a more lenient prison term at his sentencing, scheduled for Oct. 17.

He's facing a maximum of life in prison plus 105 years, though the state could have recommended a 50-year term, Wherley said in court. It's unlikely prosecutors will do that, however.

"We look forward to his sentencing hearing," Bernstein said in his statement.

tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

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