CHESTERTOWN - Six months after two blasts from a double-barreled shotgun shattered the serenity of rural Kent County and took the life of Germaine Porcea Clarkston, attention shifts today to the start of the trials of two young white men charged with killing the 73-year-old grandmother because she was black.
The case has been watched closely by state and local NAACP officials since a county grand jury handed down eight-count indictments in January against David Wayne Starkey, 24, and Daniel Robert Starkey, 20, brothers from the small town of Millington on the Delaware border. Among other charges, they are accused of murder and committing a hate crime.
Federal agents - who began a separate civil rights inquiry shortly after Clarkston was shot Dec. 4 as she and two other women returned home from a Christmas shopping trip - have not completed their investigation, which could lead to more charges.
Fearing racial strife at the county detention center, local officials temporarily moved the Starkey brothers to an undisclosed jail. The men were returned to Chestertown, where they are being held without bond.
More than 80 prospective jurors have been summoned and prosecutors are apparently concerned about extensive pretrial publicity.
The prosecutors have asked Clarkston family members and others not to discuss the case, said Douglas Jones, president of the Kent County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Violence the exception
In Maryland's least-populous county, violent crime is the exception among about 19,000 residents, and many say the shooting and its racial implications have altered their sense of security.
On average, says county Sheriff John F. Price, Kent records one murder every 10 years - sometimes less.
"I'm not sure of the exact number, but I would say there have probably been five or six murders in Kent County during my lifetime," said State's Attorney Robert H. Strong Jr., who is prosecuting the Starkey brothers.
For Clarkston's family - who for generations have lived in the small community of Georgetown, which was settled by free blacks and slaves before the War of 1812 - the shooting serves as a reminder that violence can happen anywhere.
'It can be a rat's nest'
"They say this wasn't supposed to happen here," said Linwood Clarkston Jr., an only child who lived next door to his mother in the isolated neighborhood about halfway between Rock Halland Chestertown. "It's a small town, yes, but it can be a rat's nest, too. Every once in a while, something like this can happen anywhere."
As the brothers begin back-to-back trials - Daniel is scheduled in court today, his brother on June 19 - there is still much dispute over whether the shooting was racially motivated.
Police say that the pair admitted tailing Clarkston and two other women - her cousin, Meriam G. Spriggs, 67, and Michelle Wilson, Spriggs' 38-year-old daughter - in Daniel Starkey's Chevrolet pickup for more than 20 miles along winding country roads.
Tailgating and flashing the headlights of the truck, the brothers allegedly harassed the women until the compact car driven by Wilson turned onto Georgetown Road.
It was then that two 12-gauge shotgun slugs tore through the driver's-side door of Clarkston's 1988 Plymouth Horizon.
Mortally wounded, Clarkston died two days later at Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore.
Spriggs and Wilson, who was driving with a revoked license, suffered minor injuries in the attack.
'Letter of apology'
In a statement written for police investigators and described as a "letter of apology" to the Clarkston family, David Starkey expressed remorse, claiming he had pointed the shotgun from the pickup window to scare the car's occupants. A bump in the road made it fire, he told police.
Daniel Starkey, who was arrested Dec. 9 - a day before his 20th birthday - told police he thought his brother was going to shoot out the taillights of the car or that he had fired into the air.
After the shooting, the pair sped away, throwing the spent shotgun shells out of the truck window and driving on back roads to their home in Millington, where they met with friends to drink beer and barbecue deer meat, court papers said. Daniel told police they stashed two guns in a friend's shed.
Call to 911
Ten minutes before the shooting, David Starkey placed a 911 call from a cell phone, reporting that the car they were following was driving erratically and that the driver appeared to be drunk.
Annapolis attorney Thomas McCarthy Sr., who is representing Daniel Starkey, says the 911 call shows the brothers had no intent of harming the three women.
"Obviously, the key question for Daniel is whether he knew what was going to happen, what his brother would do," McCarthy said. "I don't believe you make a 911 call to the police when you're about to kill someone."