Leaders of Baltimore's tight-knit Korean community responded with shock and anguish yesterday to Friday's acquittal of a young black man in the slaying of Towson State University student Joel J. Lee.
"I'm speechless about the outcome of the case," said Jong Park, senior vice president of the Korean-American Grocers Association and a business man in the city's Park Heights section. "How can this be? Where is the justice?"
Mr. Park said he fears that the jurors were influenced by the race of the victim, a Korean-American, and the defendant, an African-American. Jurors willing to talk about the case have denied the assertion.
"I don't want to think that way," said Mr. Park, who followed the case closely. "But 11 jurors out of 12 jurors are black. And the overwhelming testimony and evidence is there. This man just shot Joel Lee in cold blood and he walks out a free man."
"Most Korean-Americans, they trust America," said Yoon Hwan Ha, another Korean-American businessman. "But a lot of Koreans are really, really disappointed with the results of this trial."
Mrs. Hyung Kim, a convenience store owner who attended the trial each day, cried with members of the victim's family after hearing the verdict. "I think this jury showed this system failed," she said yesterday.
She said she also suspects that the verdict was based on race.
"They had plenty of evidence to convict him [Davon A. Neverdon]," she said. But she also said that the trial outcome did not signal a general rise in tensions between the Korean-Americans and African-Americans.
As she left the courthouse, she said, several African-Americans who recognized her from television reports offered their sympathy.
Rodney Orange, president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said yesterday that he plans to contact Korean-American leaders "to make sure [the verdict] doesn't inflame any feelings between the two groups."
"I'm not really familiar with what the jury based the decision on," Mr. Orange said. "I can certainly understand the feelings of the father. He thought it was clear that Mr. Neverdon was the person who shot his son. Evidently, from what the jury heard, that was not the case."
Mr. Park said the victim's father, Kenneth S. Lee, of Ellicott City, was stunned, as had been evident when the jury's verdict was announced in a Baltimore Circuit Courtroom on Friday. For a time yesterday morning, he remained in bed, refusing to talk to anyone.
Mr. Lee, senior vice president of the Korean Society of Maryland, became an advocate for victims' rights after his son's death.
Officers of the Korean Society quickly scheduled a board meeting for Tuesday in a Baltimore restaurant.
Mr. Ha, planning director for the society, said the group will decide how to respond to the trial outcome on behalf of the Baltimore metropolitan area's 35,000 Korean-Americans.
Mr. Neverdon, 20, of Northeast Baltimore was charged with the Sept. 2, 1993, slaying in the Dutch Village Apartments off Northern Parkway of Mr. Lee, a 21-year-old Towson State University senior who was lost and seeking a friend's apartment.
Four eyewitnesses testified that they saw Mr. Neverdon shoot Mr. Lee in the face during a robbery attempt in the parking lot of the apartment complex. Two of Mr. Neverdon's friends said that he later told them he shot Mr. Lee and did it because the victim didn't hand over his wallet fast enough.
Before the trial, defense attorney Antonio Gioia discussed a guilty plea by his client in exchange for a life sentence, with all but 40 years suspended. But Mr. Lee's parents objected, and the prosecutor decided to go to trial and seek a harsher sentence.
One juror, Renee Stith, said Friday that the panel had accepted Mr. Gioia's arguments that the witnesses in the case weren't credible. She denied that race was a factor.
"I can tell you race did not play a part," agreed Kecia Blakeney, another juror, in a brief interview yesterday. She refused to discuss the case further.
Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said yesterday he agreed with Judge Kenneth Lavon Johnson, who said after the verdict that he hoped "to God in Heaven" that race was not a factor.
"I have throughout my tenure as mayor worked very hard to improve relations between Korean-Americans and African-Americans," Mr. Schmoke said in a statement. "I certainly stand ready to do whatever I can to make certain we continue to have good relations between these two communities."
Mr. Gioia said yesterday he didn't think the verdict was based on race.
"African-Americans that serve as jurors in this city every day convict other African-American defendants," he said.
He called the jury in the Lee case "very courageous," because it would have been easy for jurors to feel sorry for the victim and vote for a conviction based on emotion, not facts.
Mr. Neverdon was captured by Harford County sheriff's deputies in June 1994, almost 10 months after the slaying, when the driver of the car he was riding in was stopped for drunken driving.
Police charge that Mr. Neverdon was found in the back seat with a quantity of drugs. He still faces trial in Harford County on a drug charge stemming from that incident. Those charges carry a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.
Barbara Cooper, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore City Detention Center, said Mr. Neverdon was still being held there yesterday because the center hadn't been notified formally of the verdict in his case.
She said he would probably remain there at least through tomorrow morning. Later, he is expected to be transferred to the Harford County Detention Center.