A police cruiser double-parked on Calvert Street with emergency lights flashing marked the arrival of widow Aldona Pilius for yesterday's start of Dontay Carter's murder trial.
Murder cases are tried nearly every day in Baltimore Circuit Court. But the sight of the victim's wife, friends and relatives emerging from a police car outside the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse was just one sign that this one is hardly routine.
Prosecutors, defense lawyers, reporters and curious court-watchers squeezed into Judge John N. Prevas' courtroom for the first trial in a February crime spree that left citizens looking over their shoulders while in downtown parking garages.
They saw prosecutor Vickie L. Wash gesture toward Carter and tell the jury: "I submit to you, ladies and gentlemen, this man is a monster, a most dangerous, diabolical, manipulative and savage killer."
Carter, an East Baltimore teen-ager who faces life in prison with no chance for parole if convicted, is charged with abducting Vitalis V. Pilius in the parking garage at the Harbor Park Cinema and beating him to death with a metal pole. He then allegedly used the 37-year-old Catonsville man's credit cards to buy clothes and jewelry and to rent hotel rooms.
Using a driver's license obtained from the state Motor Vehicle Administration with his picture and Mr. Pilius' identification, Carter twice slipped through the hands of the state police before being arrested.
Ms. Wash warned the jurors they would hear some graphic and brutal evidence during the trial, expected to last up to four weeks. And she said they would hear from some of Carter's partners in crime.
"When you prosecute the devil, which I tell you Dontay Carter is, sometimes you have to go to hell to get your witnesses," the prosecutor said.
Defense attorney John S. Deros, in his opening statement to the jury of nine women and three men, referred to the crime's high profile -- and the accompanying pressure on the city police homicide unit to crack the case.
Suggesting detectives constructed a case to fit preconceived notions that Carter was behind the murder, Mr. Deros said, "Come hell or high water, they were going to wrap up this case and put it down."
The defense lawyer also ridiculed the notion that prosecutors would describe Carter as manipulative and clever -- and then say he was duped into confessing under the questioning of two veteran homicide detectives. Mr. Deros said the jurors would learn the difference between "guilty knowledge vs. actual guilt."
Carter, 19, wore a paisley shirt and black jeans. He showed little emotion as the first group of prosecution witnesses testified.
Mrs. Pilius sat in the second row of the spectators' gallery, occasionally leaning forward to hear the testimony.
During one break she walked within two feet of the defendant without giving him a glance.
The first witness in the case recounted the first of several near misses by police in working the Pilius case. Officer Robert Alexander said he followed a Mercury Sable station wagon on The Alameda, running a check on the car and finding it was not stolen. Five minutes later, he said, a citywide police radio broadcast announced the vehicle, Mr. Pilius' company car, had been listed as missing.
Mr. Pilius' brother-in-law, Remigijus Balichinaus, then testified he saw the car in downtown Baltimore near the Omni Hotel. He described seeing two men, two women and an infant check into the hotel and ascend an elevator to the 14th floor. Found in the hotel room, Officer Edward M. Chaney testified, were two women and the baby -- but not Carter.
Carter faces three separate trials in connection with a weeklong crime spree in which Mr. Pilius was slain and two men were robbed and stuffed into the trunks of their cars. Judge Prevas rejected a request from prosecutors that the charges be heard in one trial and he ordered Carter's co-defendants to receive separate trials.