After just four hours of deliberation Monday, a Howard County jury convicted a homeless man on multiple counts of attempted murder, assault and gun crimes for his role in a Route 1, daytime shootout with police last year that wounded one county police officer.
Stephon Prather, 30, was found guilty on 12 of the 17 counts he was indicted on: three counts each of second-degree murder, first-degree assault and use of a handgun in commission of a felony/crime of violence and one count each of second-degree assault, reckless endangerment and use of a firearm with a felony conviction.
He was found not guilty of three counts of first-degree attempted murder, and the jury was undecided on two counts of second-degree assault.
A sentencing for Prather has not yet been scheduled, but will be later this week.
The conviction stems from an Oct. 23 shootout with three county police officers in North Laurel that hospitalized officer Steven Houk, a then two-year veteran of the force, with a gunshot wound and resulted in a 17-hour police manhunt for Prather, who was also shot twice in the melee.
During closing arguments, which were presented Monday morning, prosecutors revisited the theme from their opening statements, saying Prather made a series of choices that led to the shootout.
According to the prosecution, those choices included bringing a loaded handgun to the area, ignoring multiple commands from police officers, walking into traffic on the roadway, pulling the gun out of his pocket, shooting at the three responding police officers and fleeing.
"The choices we make dictate our actions," prosecutor Ed Bellafiore said. "He had a choice to comply or to shoot. He made a horrible and criminal choice to shoot his way out of a situation he did not want to be in. ... Mr. Prather decided to try and kill those officers that day."
Bellafiore said he was "confident" the jury would make the right choice and convict Prather.
Defense attorney Janette DeBossiere said the prosecution did not meet the burden of proof necessary for a conviction. She argued that Prather's actions were not planned or premeditated, which is one of the stipulations required for a conviction.
She conceded that he "may be guilty of some crime," but that he did not intend to kill any of the officers.
She also said Prather acted in what he thought was self-defense, a theory she originally proffered during opening statements. She said there was no intent to kill and that Prather was trying to leave the area and police followed him.
She also reiterated that Prather, who she said was high on PCP and marijuana during the incident, was not thinking clearly.
Prosecutor Jim Dietrich called DeBossiere's closing argument "a smokescreen" and urged the jury to use their common sense.
"Shooting a gun at someone is intent to kill them; that's why you do it," Dietrich said.
Dietrich also argued against self-defense.
"Suggesting that he's simply trying to get away. ... is offensive to those police officers," Dietrich said.
Prather declines to testify
Prather elected not to testify in his own defense, which came against the advice of DeBossiere.
DeBossiere said in court, and not in the presence of the jury, that the decision would hinder the defense's ability to argue that Prather was acting in self-defense. This issue became clear during DeBossiere's motion for judgment of acquittal on all counts, which was denied by Judge Richard Bernhardt.
Bernhardt declined the motion and said he had "generalized difficulty with the concept." He also declined to put any language pertaining to self-defense in the jury instructions, a document given to the jury to guide them in deliberations.
He said: "There has to be some evidence of what is going on in the defendant's mind. ... There is no evidence of the defendant's subjective belief."
During closing arguments, Dietrich told the jurors to "make the right choice based on evidence you have in front of you," adding they should avoid speculation during deliberations.
Going against his attorney's advice to testify was not the first time Prather and DeBossiere did not see eye-to-eye during the trial. Prather came close to dismissing DeBossiere as his legal representation last week after she would not agree to include a particular point in her closing argument.
Bernhardt said he would dismiss DeBossiere if Prather wanted, but that it was not reason enough for him to stop the trial. That meant, if she were dismissed, Prather would have had to proceed by representing himself.
Prather decided not to dismiss DeBossiere.