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Friends turn witnesses against alleged gunman in killing of 72-year-old

The case against Michael Hunter, who is accused of shooting a 72-year-old security guard for the Afro-American newspaper, will rely heavily on the reluctant testimony of his friends, prosecutors said during opening statements Wednesday.

"Troy Taylor doesn't want to finger his friend," prosecutor Theresa Shaffer told a Baltimore Circuit Court jury. "Tonio Billinger doesn't want to testify. But the truth is what the truth is."

Hunter, 20, is accused of gunning down Vietnam veteran Charles Bowman during the April 8, 2010, robbery of a Chinese food carryout in Waverly that netted $13. The crime shook the North Baltimore community and led police to flood the area with extra officers.

Prosecutors say Taylor, 20, joined Hunter in the robbery. Taylor pleaded guilty this year to first-degree murder and was sentenced to life with all but 30 years suspended. A witness in the case, Billinger said he was hanging out with Taylor and Hunter but parted ways before the crime occurred. Billinger, a longtime friend of Hunter's, attended Lake Clifton High School with him.

"It's a tough situation. I don't want to be part of it," he told jurors about testifying at the trial. "That's my boy. I grew up with him."

Still, Billinger told the jury he saw Hunter carry a gun, put on a mask and commit the robbery but was walking away when he heard a shot. He said he spoke later with Hunter, who told him that the great-grandfather "grabbed" at him.

"He never said, 'I shot him,' but it was understood," Billinger said of his conversation with Hunter. "There was an understanding between us about what happened."

Hunter's attorney, James L. Scott, warned jurors not to get caught up with emotional testimony and urged them to focus only on the evidence. He reminded the jury that his client has pleaded not guilty and was presumed innocent.

"You're not here to reach in your pocket and pull out a tissue," he said.

Bowman's stepdaughter, Sandra Vanwright, also testified on the first day of trial. She said Bowman had six children, 15 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. He ate from the Chinese carryout so frequently, he needed only to order "the usual" to get his meal, she said.

The trial is expected to last several days.

luke.broadwater@baltsun.com

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