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Girlfriend of man accused of killing Hopkins researcher testifies

By Andrea F. Siegel, The Baltimore Sun

8:32 PM EDT, August 11, 2011

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The girlfriend of the man accused of fatally stabbing a Johns Hopkins researcher told a Baltimore jury Thursday that she initially lied to police and blamed her cousin for the killing to protect her boyfriend.

"I didn't want Ya to go to jail for the rest of his life," Levelva Merritt testified, using the nickname of defendant John A. Wagner.

Often fidgeting as she testified for more than an hour, Merritt described a robbery that had gone bad.

Merritt, 25, admitted that she and Wagner, 38, had planned to rob someone, and that she willingly took part. However, she testified that she did not participate in the killing of 23-year-oldStephen Pitcairn.

The slaying of the cancer researcher enraged the community and was a factor in propelling Gregg L. Bernstein into office as the city's top prosecutor over incumbent State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy. During the campaign, Bernstein hammered at what he called his opponent's failure to put away repeat offenders: Wagner has previously been convicted of theft, violence and probation violations but served little jail time.

Merritt has been found guilty of at least five drug crimes. From the witness stand Thursday, she rattled off a list of illegal drugs she had been using around the time of Pitcairn's death.

Wagner's defense attorneys have argued that Merritt abandoned her initial account, in which she told police her cousin committed the crime, because prosecutors offered her a plea deal after linking her to Pitcairn's stolen cellphone: She could plead guilty to the robbery and testify against her boyfriend in exchange for a 15-year sentence, and they'd drop the murder charges that could imprison her for life.

Earlier this week, defense lawyers pointed their finger at her cousin, Kevin Cosby.

"I didn't murder anyone," Cosby, who also has a criminal record, testified Thursday.

Merritt told jurors that last July 25, she and Wagner were looking for someone to rob because "Ya [said] he wants some money." A man with a red and black duffel bag, talking on a cellphone as he was walking from Penn Station north on St. Paul Street, became "our pick," she testified.

She told jurors that they grabbed Pitcairn and that Wagner, her boyfriend of two years, stabbed Pitcairn as he offered his wallet and told them he had no money.

The victim's mother, who had been talking to him from Florida and heard most of the attack on the cellphone, left the courtroom visibly upset early during Merritt's turn on the stand. The mother's emotional testimony opened the trial this week.

Merritt admitted that she punched Pitcairn after he was on the ground and stole his cellphone. Wagner, covered in blood, had the victim's wallet, she said. The couple ran to their apartment in the 2600 block of Maryland Ave, leaving Pitcairn bleeding on the ground. He died in a stranger's arms.

Wagner's hands, clothing and shoes were bloody, and they set about cleaning Wagner up, with Wagner washing his bloodstained LeBron James jersey, she said.

"I washed the knife off," she told jurors.

Soon, Wagner grew distressed, she said, recalling that he said, "All that over a phone, I didn't mean to do it," and then, "I think I stabbed him twice." Wagner said he thought he had "hurt this white boy pretty bad," Merritt recalled.

The pair later sent Cosby to use the victim's stolen credit card at a nearby gas station on Howard Street, she said. They planned to use the proceeds to buy drugs.

Wagner's trial began Tuesday and is expected to continue into next week.

Merritt, who said she still loved Wagner, testified that she changed her account of the fatal crime "because I wanted the truth to get out." She said, "What happened to Mr. Pitcairn was wrong, it never should have happened."

But Assistant Public Defender Gregory Fischer countered that she went with a different story to save herself, as she was facing the possibility of two life sentences plus 40 years. Under cross-examination, he noted that she made a deal after learning that her fingerprint was found on Pitcairn's cellphone, and that she agreed with a prosecution version of the case.

"The state is going off of what I told them," Merritt retorted.

Saying she lied initially to protect Wagner — whom she described as her boyfriend and "best friend" — she said, "I believed Ya would help Ya."

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com