2 guilty of murder in Harris killing

A Baltimore jury convicted two young men and acquitted another of murder Friday in the death of former City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr., who was killed two years ago after he and a woman stopped by a jazz club to borrow a corkscrew as the facility was about to be robbed.

Jerome Williams, 17, and Charles McGaney, 22, were each found guilty on 28 counts, including felony first-degree murder, assault, handgun, and robbery charges. Gary Collins, 22, was acquitted of murder but found guilty on all of the other charges.

Attorneys for the defendants, who face decades in prison, said they plan to file appeals. Sentencing is scheduled for Oct. 19.

"We are pleased with the verdict," said Harris' wife, Annette, standing with her children. "Although two of the defendants were considered to be guilty in Kenneth's murder, we still feel that justice was served.

"This will not bring him back. That's the pain we will have to live with for the rest of our lives," she said. But the verdict sends a "message to the criminals of Baltimore City that they cannot [commit murder] and walk away free."

The verdict, reached after a lengthy trial and a near-deadlock, closes the door on a painful case for many in the city. Harris was well-known in the community, and his death stunned residents and politicians, including Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, who called him a friend.

"This was indeed a very sad time for all of us," she said outside the courthouse Friday, having earlier watched the verdicts being read. It was a rare recent appearance for Jessamy, and likely one of her last times in court as the city's chief prosecutor, she acknowledged. Jessamy lost the Democratic primary last month to Gregg Bernstein.

"It was very personal," Jessamy said of the Harris trial.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake called Friday afternoon for a citywide "moment of prayer and silence" to honor Harris. And Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young called the verdict an example of "justice being served."

"Ken was filled with enough ideas, passion and knowledge to help transform Baltimore into a safer, world-class city, but was taken away from us far too soon," Young said in a writtten statement.

Harris served on the City Council for eight years but left in 2007 after he lost a bid to become council president to Rawlings-Blake. He was an outspoken politician who fought for police resources and safer streets, friends said, making his violent end particularly galling.

About 1 a.m. Sept. 20, 2008, Harris and his companion, Monica Foreman Robinson, pulled up to the New Haven Lounge in Northeast Baltimore so Harris could use the restroom and open a bottle of wine they had in the car.

Owner Keith Covington had closed for the night, but he let in Harris, a longtime friend. On his way out, Harris told Covington he wanted to introduce him to the woman waiting in his Toyota, and the two stepped outside.

That's when the robbers appeared, Covington testified. On the stand, he recalled being confronted by armed men screaming orders and obscenities.

"'You know what this is,'" Covington said one of the men shouted. A gun was placed at the back of the owner's head, and he was led into the bar, where a surveillance camera captured the holdup.

Harris ran to his car, chased by another assailant. He was shot through his car window, sending glass flying, Robinson testified. The vehicle lurched forward and rammed a tree as Robinson screamed. Harris was slumped forward in the driver's seat. He died at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

The robbers stole nearly $2,000 from a club safe and fled as Covington reached for his gun and fired three times, he testified, hitting no one.

The Harris killing prompted conspiracy theories from the beginning, with some saying that police were dragging their heels in the investigation and others claiming that the robbery was a cover-up for a professional hit.

Police recovered gloves, bandannas and masks that they said were used in the crime, and lab tests found DNA evidence linking the items to Williams, Collins and McGaney.

"DNA don't lie," one juror, who declined to give his name, said after the verdict.

"Glad it's over," a female juror said, declining to speak further.

Most refused to talk to the reporters.

Deliberations lasted a week and nearly ended in deadlock Wednesday after jurors told Judge David Ross that they couldn't reach an agreement on the murder charges. But Ross told them to keep at it, and they announced a verdict shortly after 11 a.m. Friday.

The defendants showed no reaction as the guilty verdicts were announced, first against Williams, then McGaney.

But McGaney's lawyer, Jason Silverstein, said his client was so "shocked" that he "almost couldn't speak."

Williams' lawyer, Jerome Bivens, said his client seemed to have been singled out unfairly by prosecutors, who contended that Williams was the shooter.

Attorneys for the three defendants said they plan to appeal, based on information that was allowed or excluded during the trial, the way evidence was presented — particularly the DNA information — and questions that were not asked of the jurors during the selection process.

"Obviously, Mr. Collins is happy he was found not guilty of the murder," said his attorney, Janice Bledsoe. She contended that he also should have been acquitted on the other felony charges.

"It's hard to predict what juries think," she said.

Prosecutors Cynthia M. Banks and Donald J. Giblin put about 20 witnesses on the stand to prove their case, while the defense presented four over the 13 days of testimony.

"It was a long case; it was a well-tried case by everyone involved," Giblin said afterward, calling the near-deadlock "very stressful."

He said it was clear from the evidence that Collins did not pull the trigger, but he disagreed with his acquittal. Each of the defendants was charged with first-degree felony murder, meaning that the killing occurred during the commission of another violent crime, without premeditation.

"I honestly believe that there wasn't a conspiracy to kill Mr. Harris," Giblin said.

Baltimore Sun reporters Peter Hermann and Yeganeh June Torbati contributed to this article.

tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

nick.madigan@baltsun.com

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