Questions linger about Lee verdict


The judge who presided over the trial in which jurors acquitted a young black man in the slaying of Korean Towson State University student Joel J. Lee said yesterday that "we all have blood on our hands" if the verdict was based on race.

Baltimore Circuit Judge Kenneth Lavon Johnson would not elaborate on Friday's controversial verdict, saying he did not want "to aggravate anything." He said he does not question juries about their deliberations, as some judges routinely do after a trial.

Questions lingered yesterday about the not guilty verdict for the 20-year-old defendant, Davon A. Neverdon -- a decision that has stunned the city's Korean community.

Mr. Lee's father, Kenneth Lee of Ellicott City, wept at the verdict, which came despite testimony from four eyewitnesses that Mr. Neverdon shot Mr. Lee, 21, in the face during a robbery two years ago.

Before the trial, Mr. Neverdon's attorney approached prosecutors about the possibility of his client pleading guilty in return for a sentence of life with all but 40 years suspended. But Mr. Lee's family, wanting a harsher sentence, rejected the offer.

Jurors were unaware of the offer.

Most members of the predominantly black jury have declined to comment on the verdict. Two have given brief interviews denying that race was a factor, but offering little about how they reached their decision.

A juror broached the racial issue after seven hours of deliberations on Thursday by sending Judge Johnson a note voicing concern that "race may be playing some part in the deliberations."

After the acquittal, the judge said, "I hope to God in heaven this was not based upon race."

In a brief interview yesterday, Judge Johnson, who is black, expanded on his comments. "God help us if [the verdict] was based on race," he said, "because then we all have Joel Lee's blood on our hands for tolerating racism."

Kenneth Lee complained on Friday that there is "no justice at all." He charged that the racial makeup of the jury -- which had 11 black members -- led to the acquittal of Mr. Neverdon.

Two jurors interviewed Friday and Saturday said they voted for acquittal because they doubted the veracity of the several prosecution witnesses.

But three alternate jurors -- who heard the testimony but were not present for the deliberations -- said yesterday that they were surprised by the verdict, which took the panel 11 hours to reach. "I guess because it took so long, I assumed that the verdict would have come back differently," said Lina Day, 34, who is black. "There is a slim chance that it might not have been [Mr. Neverdon]. I felt that there was more to the case than was able to come out in court."

Another black alternate juror, a 43-year-old man who spoke on the condition his name not be used, questioned whether race was an issue. "The suspect was African-American, the victim was Korean -- that didn't make a difference to me. A human life is a human life. . . . "

The third alternate, a 33-year-old white truck driver, said he was "surprised" by the outcome, but declined to say which way he would have voted. "It's between the man who was charged and God," Jeffrey Applestein said. "If [the jury] says he didn't do it, then that's the way it should stand. Who am I to judge?"

Mr. Neverdon of Northeast Baltimore was charged with the Sept. 2, 1993, slaying on a Dutch Village Apartments parking lot off Northern Parkway where Mr. Lee, a 21-year-old Towson State senior, had gotten lost seeking a friend's apartment.

Four eyewitnesses, including a woman watching from her window who later said she sees Mr. Neverdon's face in her nightmares, testified that they saw him shoot Mr. Lee in the face during a robbery attempt.

Two of Mr. Neverdon's friends said he later told them he shot Mr. Lee and did it because the victim didn't hand over his wallet fast enough. After the shooting, the teen-agers ran to Mr. Neverdon's nearby apartment, where he declared, "If anybody tells, I'm going to kill them," according to trial testimony.

Mr. Neverdon was still being held in jail over the weekend, awaiting trial on drug charges from Harford County, which carry a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.

Outside the courtroom on Friday, Mr. Neverdon's mother, Karen Neverdon, proclaimed her son's innocent and said she sympathized with the Lees. "They don't know who killed their son," she said. "And that's so sad."

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