Lavelva Merritt

Lavelva Merritt, who helped rob a Johns Hopkins researcher last year as her boyfriend murdered him, has been sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Lavelva Merritt, who helped rob a Johns Hopkins researcher last year as her boyfriend murdered him, was sentenced to 30 years in prison Monday under a plea deal struck in May, though half the time was suspended, making her eligible for parole in roughly six years.

The term is short compared with the life sentence her accomplice, John Wagner, received last month after an emotional trial in Baltimore Circuit Court, but it reflects her cooperation in the case, prosecutors said.

"Without Ms. Merritt's testimony, I'm not sure whether we would have been successful" in convicting Wagner, Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein said Monday.

Merritt and Wagner, now 25 and 38 respectively, were hunting for a robbery victim the night of July 25, 2010, when they came upon Stephen Pitcairn, who was walking home along St. Paul Street while talking to his mother on his cellphone.

Wagner stabbed the young man, and Merritt — as she reminded the court Monday — "punched him in the head and took his phone," then they ran.

They were arrested within days, and have been held in custody ever since. Merritt will receive a 15-month credit on her sentence for the time she's already served.

The murder charges filed against her were dropped Monday, and she was sentenced to 15 years for conspiracy and a consecutive 15-year term for robbery. The second sentence was suspended in accordance with her plea agreement, however. She promised to testify against Wagner in return for the deal, which will give her a chance at freedom.

But if she violates her probation, which will last for three years after she's released, Judge Gale E. Rasin made it clear that she would receive no further mercy.

"You will get every second of the 15 years" remaining, Rasin said, noting that Merritt has repeatedly failed to comply with probation before.

Pitcairn's robbery was another probation violation, from an earlier drug conviction, and Merritt is facing several additional years in prison because of it at a hearing scheduled for December.

"Your prognosis," Rasin said, using medical parlance, "is guarded."

Rasin also raised concerns about Merritt's apparent lack of remorse, describing her attitude at the May plea hearing as "casual, if not blase."

"You didn't act as if this was a big deal," Rasin said, "and that concerns me a lot."

No one from Pitcairn's family appeared at the hearing, and no one spoke on Merritt's behalf. She initially refused to speak herself, until Rasin suggested she might be a "hard-hearted, cold-blooded woman."

"No," Merritt said firmly, admitting that she tried to pin the crime on a cousin, but only to protect Wagner.

Rasin continued, saying that Merritt's actions "reflect an absence of empathy and even conscience" that was "chilling," she opined, and the words stirred something in Merritt, who let loose a stream of thoughts.

She called herself "just as guilty as John," but added that "making myself depressed ain't going to make it no better."

"I'm not going to sit here and let it take over my life," she said, counting herself among those women who do "dumb stuff for a man."

"This is real life, and things ain't perfect," she said. "All I can do is guarantee I will try my best to live up to the" terms of probation.

Rasin said she would have to do better than try.

"If you don't, I will impose the additional 15 years," she said.

tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

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