Victor Levi Colbert pleaded guilty Thursday to the 2012 murder of Rodney Holmes Smith in Bel Air, bringing a nearly two-week jury trial and more than five years of legal maneuvering to an end.
Colbert maintained his innocence, as he has throughout the trial in Harford County Circuit Court, but he offered an Alford plea before Judge M. Elizabeth Bowen Thursday morning in Harford County Circuit Court.
An Alford plea means the defendant accepts the state has enough evidence for a conviction.
“I don’t think that I am guilty, but I accept the Alford plea,” Colbert told Bowen.
The state and defense had been scheduled to make their closing arguments to the jury Thursday morning. Colbert agreed, after the day’s proceedings started, that he would offer the plea. He did not have a lawyer and represented himself throughout the trial.
Thursday’s plea followed several hours of wrangling in court late Wednesday afternoon among Colbert, the judge and the prosecution over whether Colbert wanted to offer a plea, and to what, if the state would accept a plea and if so, would Colbert have to serve additional jail time for violating probation in an unrelated case because of any new conviction. Those discussions, which took place in the courtroom without the jury present, had ended with Colbert deciding to go forward with letting the jury decide.
In court Thursday, Colbert wore a dress shirt and tie and dress pants. His wrists were bound with handcuffs in front of him as he sat on the defense side of the table in the ceremonial courtroom where the trial was held.
In accordance with the plea agreement, Bowen sentenced Colbert to life in prison, with all but 40 years suspended, plus credit for the more than five years he has spent in the Harford County Detention Center. Police arrested the former Dundalk resident in December 2012 and charged him with first-degree murder.
He will also serve five years of supervised probation, according to Bowen.
“The court finds, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant is guilty of first-degree murder,” Bowen said, after Colbert accepted the plea and Assistant State’s Attorney Cristin Treaster, the lead prosecutor, read a statement outlining the state’s evidence against Colbert.
Police suspect Smith, 52, died between 11 p.m. on Dec. 8, 2012 and 3:30 a.m. on Dec. 9, 2012, according to Treaster. Police later found his body in his apartment in the 200 block of Baltimore Pike.
Treaster said the victim had been punched in the face, stabbed in the head several times, which left him unconscious; and then the killer cut his neck while he was unconscious.
That meant the killer made the choice to find a knife at the scene, attack the victim after he had been knocked down from the punch and continue the deadly attack after the victim was unconscious, meeting the standards of first-degree murder, according to Treaster.
Colbert became the prime suspect because his fingerprint was found on a vodka bottle at the scene, he had left phone messages for the victim, he could be seen near the scene in video surveillance footage from a nearby 7-Eleven store, and police found blood on Colbert’s shoes and jacket that matched the victim’s blood, Treaster said.
Treaster did not comment further. She invited Hugh and Sally Smith, the victim’s parents, to make a victim impact statement, but they declined.
In a phone interview Thursday afternoon, Treaster said Colbert “had a chance to think about [the guilty plea] overnight and changed his mind.”
Treaster, who said she had been assigned to the case since its beginning, said “it’s very unusual for five years to go by” between a crime and the end of a trial.
She said one benefit of the guilty plea is that “it puts closure on this case,” since it is unlikely there will be further appeals or court proceedings.
Bowen had told Colbert he cannot file an automatic appeal with the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, but he must get permission from the court to do so, and he must show the Circuit Court had proper jurisdiction over the case, whether the sentence was legal, whether he accepted the plea voluntarily and whether he voluntarily waived his right to counsel.