Baltimore County prosecutors failed yesterday in an unusual attempt to have a man sentenced to death for a manslaughter conviction.
Instead, Robert Lee Berry received life in prison plus 20 years for killing an employee of the Cockeysville Sizzler restaurant that he and three other men robbed Dec. 26.
In an emotional address to the victim's mother, Berry repeatedly covered his face, apologized and said, "I keep asking myself, 'What happened? What went wrong.' "
What went wrong, Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr. said, "is a classic example of what can happen when a group of people decide that they're going to commit an aggressive and rather spectacular robbery."
During the robbery, Berry, 26, hauled John D. Tillman from the kitchen at gunpoint and ordered him to point out the manager. Then, witnesses said, Berry appeared to become impatient and shot Mr. Tillman as three other masked men robbed patrons of the restaurant in the 10000 block of York Road.
All four were arrested and convicted as a result of Berry's confession, defense attorney Joseph M. Niland noted.
On Aug. 9, a jury convicted Berry of manslaughter -- rather than first-degree or second-degree murder. He also was convicted of a handgun charge, seven counts of robbery and felony murder. Maryland law allowed prosecutors to seek the death penalty because Berry killed a man during the commission of a felony.
"The state believes the appropriate sentence is a death sentence," said Assistant State's Attorney Jason G. League, who asked for a life without parole sentence as an alternative.
The victim's mother, Ruth Tillman, said afterward that she doesn't believe in the death penalty because "I think it should be left in God's hands." She said she would have preferred life without parole.
"If giving Mr. Berry a death sentence would bring Mr. Tillman back, I would perform the execution myself," Judge Murphy said.
Berry, of the 3100 block of Sequoia Ave., said he quit school in the sixth grade.
"People told me I was living a wrong life and something was going to happen to me," he said. "When we choose to take that route, the first time we do it and get away with it . . . it feels as though we can do it again and again and again -- until something happens."
Mrs. Tillman told Judge Murphy she has been under psychiatric care as a result of her son's death and that her son's 11-year-old daughter, Terresa, who had been an "A" student, is struggling in sixth grade.
Judge Murphy said he would not recommend parole for Berry.