A man accused of murdering Towson State University student Joel J. Lee was acquitted of all charges yesterday by a Baltimore jury, outraging the victim's Korean-born parents and prompting them to blame racism for the not guilty verdicts.
Davon A. Neverdon, 20, could have received a sentence of life in prison without parole if he had been convicted.
At one point before the trial, Mr. Neverdon's attorney approached prosecutors about his client possibly pleading guilty return for a sentence of life with all but 40 years suspended, according to the attorney and prosecutors.
But Mr. Lee's parents, shaken by the loss of their oldest son and the callousness of the ruthless murder on Sept. 2, 1993, told a prosecutor to reject the plea agreement, go to trial and seek a harsher sentence.
Instead, the jury rejected the testimony from four eyewitnesses who claimed to have watched Mr. Neverdon shoot Mr. Lee in the face during a robbery attempt in the parking lot of a Northeast Baltimore apartment complex. After 11 hours of deliberation, the jury found Mr. Neverdon not guilty of murder, robbery, and deadly weapons charges.
After the verdict was read, Mr. Lee's father buried his face in his hands and wept.
Two of Mr. Neverdon's close friends also had testified that they saw him with Mr. Lee's wallet after the shooting and said that he shot the student because the victim didn't hand over his wallet quickly enough.
"Right now, there's no justice system. No justice at all. Everybody knows Davon Neverdon killed my son. He just walked out," said Mr. Lee's father, Kenneth Lee of Ellicott City. Mr. Lee said he believed the racial makeup of the jury -- which had 11 black members -- played a role in the verdict.
The jury arrived at the decision "because my son is Korean American and he [Mr. Neverdon] is African American," said Kenneth Lee, who says he will ask for a federal civil rights investigation. "What kind of justice is this? I'm really sad for America right now."
One juror, Renee Stith, a 35-year-old homemaker, said after the verdict that she was surprised to hear that Mr. Neverdon's attorney, Antonio Gioia, had had discussions about his client pleading guilty. Prosecutors are not allowed to mention plea negotiations to the jury.
"That does surprise me. I didn't know it," Mrs. Stith said in a telephone interview.
She said the jury opted for acquittal after agreeing that the witnesses weren't credible. Three were friends of Mr. Neverdon and a fourth was a woman who saw the killing while looking out of her balcony window.
Mrs. Stith said she did not believe there was any racial motivation behind the verdict, although she did concede there was a racial comment made by a juror that caused some tension.
"Someone made a comment about young black youth, and someone else said, 'Isn't that what they're all like?' " which was perceived as being a racial remark, Mrs. Stith said. She would not elaborate.
At one point during the deliberations, one of the jurors sent Judge Kenneth L. Johnson a note voicing concern that "race may be playing some part in the deliberations," Judge Johnson said.
In response to that question, the judge told the jurors, "Race has absolutely no part in this case." After the verdict was read yesterday, Judge Johnson told the jurors, "I hope to God in Heaven this was not based upon race."
Mr. Neverdon is still jailed. He faces a charge of drug distribution in Harford County, where he was taken into custody in June 1994. If convicted, he could be sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Joel Lee, a computer science major at Towson state, was going to a friend's house to borrow a book when he became lost at Dutch Village Apartments in the 7000 block of McLean Blvd. Three witnesses, who were walking with Mr. Neverdon to a McDonald's restaurant, testified that Mr. Neverdon broke away from the group and asked Mr. Lee for $1.
The witnesses said Mr. Lee pulled out his wallet and was taking out $1 to give Mr. Neverdon. But, they said, Mr. Neverdon snatched at the wallet, Joel Lee pulled it back and was shot just below the right eye.
Mr. Neverdon's attorney, Antonio Gioia, had spoken with prosecutors about a plea agreement that would have sent Mr. Neverdon to prison for 40 years. But yesterday, Mr. Gioia played down the arrangement as "very preliminary" and made out of concern for the lengthy sentence sought by the state -- life without parole.
"I did go to [the state,] yes, I did," Mr. Gioia said. "I made a preliminary inquiry. No formal agreement was made, however," and Mr. Neverdon didn't suggest the offer or agree to plead guilty, Mr. Gioia said.
At trial, Mr. Gioia tried to discredit the eyewitnesses, describing them as "misfits" who were "not just innocent onlookers out for a midsummer night's stroll."
Mr. Gioia said a fourth witness, the woman looking out of her window, originally told police that the gunman had bushy hair, in contrast to Mr. Neverdon's close-cropped style.
"The police department tried to take a square peg and squeeze it into a round hole," said Mr. Gioia, who claimed detectives were under intense pressure to solve a case that was closely followed in the media.
The slaying of Mr. Lee epitomized the ruthlessness of city crime in a year that went on to become Baltimore's worst-ever for homicide.
Ahmet Hisim, the prosecutor on the case, said he was "put aback" that a not guilty verdict was returned by jurors "after we provided them with so much evidence, including four eyewitnesses and confessions heard by two people."
"I believe he was guilty," Mr. Hisim said. "I feel terrible for [Kenneth] Lee. This is his first son. He wanted justice. How can you explain something like this to a parent? It's very sad."