In what a prosecutor termed a "hollow victory," Richard Antonio Moore pleaded guilty yesterday to killing Baltimore County police Sgt. Bruce A. Prothero during a jewelry store robbery 15 months ago and was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
The plea allowed Moore to avoid a possible death sentence and came the day before opening statements were to begin in his trial in Harford County Circuit Court.
Moore, 30, declined to comment and showed little emotion yesterday after admitting he fired the three shots that killed Prothero during a robbery Feb. 7, 2000, at J. Brown Jewelers in Pikesville, where the 35-year-old father of five was working part-time as a security guard.
The victim's widow, Ann Prothero, rushed from the courtroom in tears as a prosecutor described the shooting. One of the victim's sisters, Denice Fitts, fainted as Moore was sentenced and had to be helped back to her seat.
Family members said they were told about plea negotiations late Sunday and learned that a tentative agreement had been reached about noon yesterday.
"There's a sense of relief, but there's no real satisfaction. There never can be," said Rick Prothero, the victim's brother. "Since this happened, our family hasn't had a day go by that's been a good day."
The case was moved to Harford County at Moore's request because of concerns about pretrial publicity. Moore is the fourth and final defendant to be tried and convicted in the slaying.
Accomplices Donald White and Troy White, who are not related, were convicted by separate juries and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Wesley Moore, who also was convicted by a jury of first-degree felony murder, is scheduled to be sentenced June 5 by Baltimore County Circuit Judge James T. Smith Jr. The Moores are half-brothers. All the defendants are from Baltimore
As the trigger man, Moore was the only one of the four who could have been sentenced to death. Moore, wearing a gray hooded sweatshirt and blue jeans, also pleaded guilty yesterday to armed robbery, first- degree assault and a handgun charge.
In a courtroom packed with police and Prothero family members, Judge Emory A. Plitt Jr. expressed sympathy to the family as he handed Moore the life sentence plus a 40-year consecutive term for the assault, armed robbery and handgun convictions.
"I'm not so certain that there's anything anyone can do or say to ease the hurt or the pain," Plitt said. "You will remain in my prayers as well as in the prayers of everyone around here."
Assistant State's Attorney S. Ann Brobst said she had a strong case against Moore. Prosecutors planned to present evidence from a jailhouse informant, ballistics reports and DNA tests to link him to the shooting.
But Brobst said she agreed with the Prothero family's decision to accept the plea because of court rulings that have stalled executions in Maryland in recent months and an appeals process that guarantees those sentenced to death roughly 15 years of delays.
"This is really a very hollow victory because while it was certainly a wise decision, it isn't the most appropriate sentence," Brobst said. She added that she would have preferred a death sentence, but that in Maryland, capital punishment is "a sentence that only exists on paper."
Moore's attorneys, Amanda E. Bull and Samuel Truette III, left the courtroom after the hearing and avoided reporters' questions. They could not be reached for comment last night.
Joann Prothero, the victim's mother, said the family generally agreed that the plea was the right thing to do. But she acknowledged that there was dissension.
Lisa Ash, the victim's sister, was one of the dissenters. She told the court during the sentencing phase of the hearing that she would have preferred that the state seek a death sentence.
"I don't think you deserve to breathe air," she told Moore.
Displaying a leaf - mounted on white paper - from the bushes where her brother died, Ash said she and her siblings hold on to such leaves as memories.
Looking directly at Moore, she said, "Bruce stood for everything that was good in society. And you stand for everything that is evil."
As Ash left the stand, Moore muttered back at her, "Same to you."