About 200 members of Baltimore's Jewish community packed courtroom benches Thursday, lined walls and stood single-file in aisles — some reading religious texts — amid growing concern over the potential release of the man who killed an 11-year-old girl in 1969.
Emotions remain high in Northwest Baltimore more than 40 years after the murder of Esther Lebowitz. The latest appeal by Wayne Stephen Young, found guilty in her death and sentenced to life in prison, drew wide protest because a recent appellate court ruling has led prosecutors to release dozens of people convicted decades ago.
The state is fighting to keep Young, now 68, locked up. In court Thursday, Assistant State's Attorney Antonio Gioia cited the disturbing nature of the crime — Lebowitz, missing for two days, was found beaten to death with a hammer. The state's theory was that she also had been sexually assaulted. Gioia also referred to "overwhelming" evidence against Young and said he had confessed to the crime.
"In a city that unfortunately is no stranger to violent crime, this crime was truly heinous," Gioia said at Thursday's hearing.
Young wants his case reconsidered under a 2012 ruling by Maryland's highest court, which said many convictions before 1980 were invalid because jurors were given unconstitutional instructions.
Howard L. Cardin, the former prosecutor who tried the case against Young, said in an interview that he deserves a new trial. Now a defense attorney, Cardin has a client seeking a new trial on similar grounds.
"If an error was made, and he did not get a fair trial as would be dictated, then he is entitled to a new trial," Cardin said. "That doesn't mean he'll get acquitted."
Baltimore Circuit Judge Edward R. K. Hargadon did not rule on Young's request Thursday, and said he would issue a written opinion at a later date.
Word of the hearing for Young, who has been denied parole 12 times, began spreading through the Jewish community about two weeks ago. By Monday, the Baltimore Jewish Life website displayed an "emergency call for action."
Frank Storch, a co-founder of the Northwest Citizens Patrol, was 12 years old when Esther was killed and vividly remembers the search for her. On Thursday he organized buses to shuttle community members to the courthouse steps and worked with courthouse staff to ensure smooth entry.
"It would be a travesty of justice to allow a murderer that confessed to doing such horrible things to be freed," Storch said.
Outside the courthouse after the hearing, Rabbi Shaye Taub, of the Arugas Habosem congregation, said Esther's death was for the Jewish community "no less than if you rip a limb off a person."
"There is a void that is constant," he said. Calling the crime "animalistic in nature," Taub said, "I hope the judge understands, to keep the children of Baltimore safe."
A Baltimore jury in the original trial deliberated less than 30 minutes before convicting Young, who was 24 at the time and the owner of a tropical fish store where Esther had stopped on her way home from school on Sept. 29, 1969.
Esther was missing for two days, last seen alive by a rabbi who had given her and two other children a ride from the Bais Yaakov School. Her body was found in a ditch a half-mile from her Mount Washington home. She had been struck in the head 17 times, an autopsy found.
Young based his defense almost entirely on the contention that he was temporarily insane, which Gioia said Thursday was an admission of the crime. He also cited court transcripts in which a police sergeant who oversaw Young's polygraph test testified that Young told him, "I did this. I killed that little girl."
Psychiatrists called by the defense at trial said that Young was "too dependent upon his mother's will" and was under constant stress. A doctor from Clifton T. Perkins Hospital testified that Young killed Lebowitz "because he was trying to destroy his mother," who was described as "overprotective, doting, almost overwhelming."
A hush fell over the crowd as Young entered, wearing a denim prison jumpsuit, his face worn and his hair now salt and pepper. He did not speak at the hearing.
Esther's family did not attend, having moved to Israel years ago. Gioia said he confirmed that the family knew of the hearing.
Young's attorney, Erica J. Suter, read from the court transcripts, quoting the trial judge's remarks in which he said that his instructions were "only advisory."
Similar language led the Maryland Court of Appeals to issue the ruling in another case that sparked Young's request.
Several defendants have struck agreements with prosecutors resulting in their release, including most recently former Black Panther leader Marshall "Eddie" Conway.
Michael Millemann, a University of Maryland law school professor, said prosecutors have opposed the release of least 11 convicts. They lost seven of those cases, and have worked out agreements leading to the convicts' release or are pending trial.
"Anyone who was tried before 1980 is entitled to a new trial," Millemann said. "In deciding which cases to resolve by agreement resulting in releases, the Baltimore state's attorney's office has decided on a case-by-case basis, which is a model of what prosecutors should do."
Cardin, the former prosecutor, said he agrees with the ruling spurring the new trials, called the "Unger ruling" after the convict whose case led to the decision. Cardin is fighting for the release of a Harford County man, Peter Waine, under the Unger decision, and said he has been waiting 18 months for an appellate court ruling.
Though the state has adopted a "life means life" approach in recent decades, Cardin said when he was a prosecutor there was an expectation that offenders sentenced to life would eventually be released. Though he said he did not know the specifics of Young's time behind bars, he believes many inmates are denied parole simply because of the crime they committed and without consideration for the progress they might have made.
David R. Blumberg, the chairman of the Maryland Parole Commission, said he has never personally overseen a parole request from Young. But Blumberg grew up in Mount Washington and was 13 years old at the time of the crime, and has since reviewed the file.
"I remember it very well as a part of my childhood, just what a senseless loss of life it was," Blumberg said. "You read many cases, and some stay with you. And this stayed with me."