James Featherstone, accused at 16 in the killing of Alan Trimakas, a Johns Hopkins medical student, won his freedom Tuesday afternoon — his life sentence suspended at 35 years because of a court ruling that found a serious flaw in the handling of his murder trial in 1979.
Now 52, Featherstone arrived for a hearing in Baltimore Circuit Judge Barry G. Williams' large fifth-floor courtroom in prison attire. There was a chain around his midsection, and his hands were cuffed. He wore a knitted skull cap, dungarees, a denim shirt with "D.O.C." (Department of Corrections) in white letters on the back, white sneakers and shackles.
Less than an hour later, he left the courthouse a free man, but not before the sister of his victim, a nurse from Colorado, looked Featherstone in the eyes and delivered a heart-wrenching report on the consequences of his crime.
Rita Kolberg was 19 when her older brother was shot to death near Hopkins Hospital. On Tuesday, she read from a handwritten statement on lined notebook paper. Her voice shattered the ceremonial quiet of the courtroom.
"I still recall the screech and the cry coming from the other end of the phone as my mother shouted that my brother was murdered," she said, her voice strong and at first startling. From his seat at the trial table 30 feet away, Featherstone looked up — looked right at Kolberg.
"I could not comprehend why a human being would kill another for a few measly dollars," she said. "Was this some type of fun or dare?" She looked at Featherstone, as if waiting for an answer. He kept his eyes on her. He showed no emotion.
"The pain this senseless killing has caused has been deep," Kolberg continued, her voice rising and cracking a little, but never breaking. "The birthdays, the weddings, family reunions and brother-sister relationships we have missed …
"Did my brother see me get married?" She leaned forward, toward Featherstone. "No!
"Did my brother welcome my three beautiful, adopted children to America? No.
"Did my sister and I ever have the opportunity to discuss [Trimakas'] love of cardiology since we are both cardiac nurses because of him? The answer is no."
Though he dropped his eyes to his hands at moments, Featherstone mostly looked at Kolberg as she read the part of her statement about her elderly parents in Ohio.
"Even now, my parents are tremendously scarred," she said. "The pain of this horrific crime is carved into their frail hearts, faces and souls. …
"Is 35 years enough punishment? I do not know. That depends on the killer. Has there been remorse and change? I wonder if there will be another family robbed of love and memories. I question if there should be a release."
Kolberg turned away and took a seat.
Three-plus decades ago, Featherstone had appeared as a defendant in one of the same courtrooms where he appeared Tuesday. I was there, in 1979, but I have no memory of him. All I remember is the white medical coat that his victim had worn on the night of the fatal shooting near Hopkins Hospital. At trial, the prosecutor kept the coat, with Alan Trimakas' name badge still attached, on a chair where the jury could see it — a reminder of the special loss his death represented.
Speaking Tuesday for the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Mary Foy, associate dean and registrar, noted how many of Trimakas' classmates had gone on to successful careers. "Alan planned to train in cardiology and would himself be at the pinnacle of his career," Foy said. "We can never know what lives were lost because he was not there to treat them or what discoveries were not made because he was not there to find them."
Tuesday's hearing had been called to settle the Featherstone case, one of about 200 affected by the so-called Unger ruling. Two years ago, the Maryland Court of Appeals found that, prior to 1980, criminal juries were routinely given a constitutionally flawed instruction by trial judges -- incredibly, they were told that they, and not the judges, were the judges of law and of facts; anything the judges said about the law was merely advisory.
The ruling applied to anyone who was convicted before 1980. One of them was Featherstone.
Represented by a University of Maryland law professor, Michael Millemann, and one of his students, Danica Buck, Featherstone could have been granted a new trial. However, through negotiations with the Baltimore state's attorney's office, a settlement was reached, and Williams accepted it. Featherstone's life sentence was reduced to the 35 years he had served; he was placed on five years' probation.
Asked if he had a statement, Featherstone followed the advice of his lawyers to make a limited public comment. In a soft, raspy voice, he said, "I just like to thank the court for a second opportunity."
He hunched over the trial table and, still chained and cuffed, signed probation documents. Then the cuffs and shackles came off, and Featherstone headed for a church-affiliated transitional housing program where he'll have help getting his feet and finding a job.