A Harford County Circuit Court jury Tuesday found an Abingdon man guilty of second-degree murder in the 2001 shooting death of his fiancee.
Elijah McNeil had received a new trial on his prior conviction of first-degree murder to which he had pleaded guilty.
McNeil, an Army staff sergeant who at the time was stationed at Aberdeen Proving Ground, shot Mary Ann Mathiowdis 18 times with a military-style rifle in the 3500 block of Woodbrook Court in Abingdon on Feb. 5, 2001. McNeil was 35; his victim was 39. The two were living together.
Within hours of the jury's verdict, Harford Circuit Judge Stephen Waldron sentenced McNeil to the maximum sentence of 30 years, with a little more than 13 years of credit that covers the time he has spent in prison since his original conviction, plus any diminution credits he earned.
The jury acquitted McNeil on three related reckless endangerment charges.
Court costs were waived and McNeil has 10 days to ask for a new trial and he is not eligible for parole until he has served 50 percent of the sentence, minus the credit, Waldron said.
"Obviously we are dealing with a tragedy of the highest magnitude, a horrible event," Waldron said, noting both the defendant's and the victim's families have suffered a loss.
"This is the ultimate act of domestic violence," the judge said.
The jury trial for McNeil began last week after a guilty plea he made in 2002 was found by a judge to have a defect and he was granted post-conviction relief and a new trial. McNeil had previously pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced by Harford Circuit Judge Maurice Baldwin Jr. to life in prison with the possibility of parole.
"It was not constitutionally valid," said his new lawyer, public defender Lloyd Merriam, of McNeil's earlier plea and conviction.
Merriam explained that McNeil had not been advised by his prior lawyer of what the state would need to prove to find him guilty. McNeil had a hearing earlier this year before Circuit Court Judge Emory Plitt Jr., who granted him a new trial.
In his closing arguments Monday, Merriam urged the jury to find McNeil guilty of second-degree murder, but not first-degree murder or reckless endangerment.
If the murder was premeditated, Merriam asked, "why was he upset and so immediately remorseful?"
Several witnesses testified they saw McNeil run out in the street after the killing, apparently sobbing or questioning why he killed Mathiowdis.
Assistant State's Attorney Lisa Marts, meanwhile, argued McNeil knew exactly what he was doing, pointing out he went upstairs to pick a door lock after Mathiowdis locked herself in a room after an argument they had earlier that night.
Mathiowdis had apparently been trying to end the relationship when McNeil ended up shooting her with what Marts pointed out was not a shotgun but a "heavy-duty gun."
"This case is about anger and control," Marts said, noting McNeil fired 22 bullets, 18 of which hit Mathiowdis.
Other bullet fragments hit a dresser, stereo and wall where McNeil's son, Joshua, then 12 years old, was trying to sleep in the basement.
Joshua McNeil, who now lives in Texas, testified Monday that he was awakened by the commotion.
"My father and Miss Mary had an argument that led to her death," he said.
After hearing what he said was five shots, he yelled out, "What's going on?" and went upstairs, where he saw his father on his knees and Mathiowdis lying on the floor.
Joshua McNeil said he even had to step over her body, which was by the stairs.
He then saw his father in the street, yelling and crying, "God, what have I done?"
Joshua McNeil confirmed a statement from Marts that he heard his father say, "Now we are both dead, [expletive]."
Karen Finley, a friend of Elijah McNeil's from the military, had been on the phone with him just before the shooting.
She said she thought it was "a normal conversation" until McNeil tried to get her to talk to Mathiowdis and "his demeanor just changed."
Finley recalled trying to get McNeil to calm down, but she said he became a "raging, cursing" stranger.
"That is not the Elijah that I knew," she said.
Finley testified that she heard gunshots, a lot of yelling and someone yelling, "No, no," before the phone went dead.
"It happened so fast I really didn't realize what had happened," Finley said. She was overcome by emotion during the testimony, prompting a brief court recess.
Michael Collins, who lived across from McNeil at the time, testified McNeil came out in front of the house and was down on his knees at one point.
Although it was 12 years ago, Collins said he thought he recalled McNeil say he "I shot Mary" or "I killed Mary," and also making the statement that "It's not my fault."
Collins confirmed that McNeil did not try to flee or run away after the incident.
Several people, including Stacia Whitman, a friend of McNeil's who now lives in Woonsocket, R.I., testified that McNeil was always a good person and was never known to act violently. Whitman said McNeil would give anyone his last dollar.
"He would do anything for anybody," she said, adding he was always in church and took his son, Mary's children and Whitman's son to church.
In her closing argument, Marts said the defense could not "have it both ways," in claiming that McNeil was both a good person and did not know what he was doing.
"He knew exactly what he was doing...This is not someone in a blind rage," she said, adding he referred to Mathiowdis with expletives before shooting her.
"That is the real Elijah McNeil," the prosecutor said.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun