Calling the crime "an American tragedy," a Baltimore judge yesterday sentenced two young men to life plus 20 years in prison for killing a newly arrived Russian immigrant who was gunned down on his pizza delivery route.
"Igor Berenshteyn left Russia to come to America, where one comes to realize opportunity and dreams," said Circuit Judge Ellen M. Heller as more than a half-dozen people wept in the courtroom.
"But the defendants, like many of their contemporaries, lost sight of the fact that America is a place for opportunities and dreams," Judge Heller said. "Somehow, the message has to get out that life is not a cheap commodity. It means something."
Judge Heller handed down the sentence after hearing a touching statement from Mr. Berenshteyn's mother, Faina Vaynerman, who implored the judge to "restore the family's faith in America."
"Our son crossed the ocean coming to America to establish a new life," said Mrs. Vaynerman, who emigrated to Baltimore from Ulyanovsk with her son in January 1993. "This whole transition was designed with faith in himself, his family, in America, and in the good of his fellow men. These two men have clouded our faith in America and in the good of fellow men."
The attackers -- Joseph Benjamin, 23, and Samuel Smalls, 18 -- had troubled childhoods and turned to robbing pizza delivery men for quick cash.
On Aug. 10, 1994, they made a false order for a pizza and waited in the 2700 block of Virginia Ave. in Northwest Baltimore. The delivery man who arrived was Mr. Berenshteyn, 23, who often worked 80-plus hours a week to support his family.
Benjamin pointed a gun at Mr. Berenshteyn, who had been robbed two previous times on his pizza delivery route and carried a knife for his protection. The immigrant pulled out the knife but did not pose any danger to the attackers, said assistant state's attorney Althea Handy.
"He was several feet away and almost in his car," Ms. Handy said. "He was backing up and only trying to get away. They [Benjamin and Smalls] were in no danger."
According to court evidence, Smalls yelled to Benjamin, "Shoot him, shoot him, shoot him," and Benjamin fired twice, with one shot hitting Mr. Berenshteyn in the left side. He was pronounced dead a short time later at Sinai Hospital.
Defense attorneys had urged the judge to consider where the attackers came from -- the troubled streets of one of the United States' most violent cities.
Benjamin's lawyer, Lawrence Rosenberg, described his client as mildly retarded former special education student who "is exceptionally slow, a follower who will always do what people tell him to do." He also had heroin and drinking problems, Mr. Rosenberg said.
Benjamin shook as he turned to address about 10 of Mr. Berenshteyn's relatives in the courtroom yesterday. "I'd like to apologize. I'm sorry, so sorry . . . ," he said before his voice choked off with tears.
Smalls, who was 17 at the time of the killing, came from a large family that at times had no coats or shoes, said his attorney, Maureen Glancy. For a time, he was homeless, she said.
But Ms. Handy, the prosecutor, described Smalls as a predator, not a victim, in American urban life. She said his juvenile record indicated that he once made up for his family's lack of coats by robbing one from someone else.
And, in May 1994, he threatened to kill his mother with a gun after she would not allow him to sell drugs out of her Northwest Baltimore house, Ms. Handy said.
Smalls continued to maintain his innocence despite being found guilty by a jury, telling the judge that he was "blamed or framed" and had been "locked up for something I didn't do."
Mr. Berenshteyn's mother, Ms. Vaynerman, told the judge that a troubled childhood is no excuse for the misery that the men have caused her family.
"A part of us -- our lives -- has gone to the grave. We no longer have any interest in life. These men have stolen our happiness," said Ms. Vaynerman, a former Russian journalist who has been unable to find any work but baby-sitting in the United States. "Our nights are sleepless, we stay depressed and cry all the time."
She said she has had trouble finding a therapist who can cut through language and cultural barriers and fully comprehend the impact that the murder has had on the family.
"This loss has caused great feelings of guilt," Ms. Vaynerman said. "We feel guilty because Igor wanted to stay in Russia. We encouraged him to come here for a better life. We brought our son to America for protection, and yet we failed to protect him from cruelty."