Eugene J. Edwards pleaded guilty to a murder on Wednesday, and was expected to be released in time for dinner.
Edwards was 14 years old in January 2002, when prosecutors say he fatally shot an 18-year-old man in East Baltimore during a robbery attempt. His accomplices and other witnesses implicated him, and he was sentenced as an adult to 30 years in prison following a guilty plea.
But in 2013, Edwards successfully argued that he had not been properly advised of the charges before entering his plea, and he was granted a new trial.
In the time that had passed, however, evidence was lost, and witness statements changed.
So instead of risking an acquittal at trial, city prosecutors offered a deal: Edwards, now 27, would be released immediately on time served, but the conviction would stand. Under the arrangement, he could be sent back to prison for even longer than his original sentence should he violate probation.
Baltimore Circuit Judge Emanuel Brown expressed concerns about the plea agreement. He let Edwards go with a warning about the time he would face — potentially up to 37 years — if he slips up.
"You have no wiggle room," Brown told him.
Edwards' defense attorney, Jason Ott, said his client was a boy when the crime was committed and had matured while incarcerated. Babyfaced in his mugshot, he stood before Brown with a bushy beard and glasses.
"When you grow up in prison, you find out what not to do to come back," Ott said after the hearing. "He made a mistake, he takes full responsibility, and he's happy to have another chance."
Advocates for youth and justice reform say attitudes toward sentencing youth as adults have been evolving over the past decade, with a push toward rehabilitation in the juvenile system.
Carmen Daugherty, policy director for the Campaign for Youth Justice, said that while kids might know right from wrong, brain research shows impulse control and understanding of consequences continues to develop until age 25.
People like Edwards face steep odds after spending their formative years in an adult prison and then being released “and told, ‘Get yourself together’ without proper re-entry services,” she said.
“The chances of recidivism are very high for that population,” Daugherty said.
Prosecutors alleged that on the night of the killing, Edwards, Kennard Hamilton and Cornell Arrington were looking to rob people. They stole $110 from one man, but another — Darell King, 18 — refused to comply and was shot.
Edwards was the youngest of the group; Hamilton was 15, and Arrington was 16.
Arrington and Hamilton were arrested first, based on a witness identification. In subsequent police interviews, both described Edwards as the aggressor. Days earlier, The Baltimore Sun reported at the time, Edwards had cut off an ankle-monitoring device required of him by a juvenile court master.
Hamilton said the group was out buying marijuana and paid King $25 for five bags, according to a transcript. Edwards believed they had been shorted, Hamilton said. He tried to get his money back, to no avail.
Edwards picked up a gun from a nearby location, tucked it in his sleeve, then shot King, Hamilton said.
After Hamilton was arrested, his mother, Adrian Cator, said Edwards approached her and admitted the killing. Edwards told her that he was "tired of everybody robbing me," Cator said.
"I will testify to it and swear it on a stack of Bibles," Cator said, according to a transcript.
All three were charged with first-degree murder, murder conspiracy, robbery, and other charges. Arrington's case was remanded to juvenile court, and he was in and out of jail for the next 12 years until May 2014, when he was fatally shot.
Hamilton and Edwards pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and related charges.
In June 2013, Edwards petitioned the court to reconsider his sentence. With help from a public defender, he argued he had not been properly advised of the nature of the charges against him, and had not been appointed counsel to help him with an appeal.
His original attorney did not believe he was competent to stand trial, and it was noted in a psychiatric evaluation before his original sentencing that Edwards had a mental health history and had difficulty understanding and answering questions.
Prosecutors argued that the charges were "self-explanatory" and did not need to be explained.
Circuit Judge Althea Handy disagreed, saying the "totality of the circumstances" showed Edwards did not understand the nature and the elements of the charges. Handy said even though he affirmatively answered questions saying he understood what was happening, "this was not tantamount to acknowledging he understood the nature and elements of the charges."
Faced with the prospect of retrying the case, prosecutors found the evidence lacking. A brief notation in Edwards' court file shows two homicide detectives and Assistant State's Attorney Angela Diehl visited Hamilton at a Western Maryland prison to talk about the case, and he recanted his account that Edwards was the shooter. Instead, he said, he had the gun.
The plea was to have taken place Monday, but efforts to find the victim's family were unsuccessful. Brown postponed proceedings to Wednesday and instructed prosecutors to find King's mother and let her know what was happening. Diehl said King's mother was tracked to a local hospital, where she is being treated and has no imminent timetable for being released.
Diehl said King's mother "does not believe the defendant should walk the streets of Baltimore" but understood why prosecutors made the offer.
Several of Edwards' family members were in the courtroom as Brown walked him through the plea. He required Edwards to enter a GED program within 90 days and said he would have to submit to regular drug testing and treatment. He is on probation for the next five years.
"He's a good kid," Ott said, "and he's got a shot now."