Scott Jory Brill was convicted yesterday of first-degree murder in the stabbing and strangling of Ashley Nicole Mason, 14, whose bloody body was found in November in woods behind a Columbia Pizza Hut.
Howard County Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney, who tried the case instead of a jury, said that while he believes a second man, Frederick James Moore, initiated the stabbing, Brill joined in while the girl was alive -- and after he heard what he told police were her final words: "Don't stab me no more. I'm already dead."
"It may have been that Mr. Brill joined in a murder he did not initially plan out as to its consequences, but he did join with Mr. Moore willfully, deliberately and with premeditation to bring it to its grisly and tragic conclusion," Sweeney said during his 25-minute explanation of the guilty verdict.
After Sweeney read his verdict in a courtroom packed to capacity with Ashley's friends and family, Brill, 19, turned to his left and looked at his best friend, Tavon Waller, then swiveled in the direction of Ashley's mother, Crystal Mason, and lead detective Cpl. Glenn Case and stared.
Mason, who said her heart pounded through Sweeney's long recitation, stared back.
"I waited a whole year for this," she said later. "When I visit Ashley [at her grave] today, I can tell her that we got him. We got him."
Waller, who said Brill told him he watched Moore kill Ashley but did not participate, said he couldn't believe the verdict.
"He just looked at me like, 'How the hell did this happen?'" Waller, 19, said. "He knew that I knew he didn't do it."
Sweeney's decision exposes Brill, of the 5700 block of Sweetwind Court in Columbia, to a potential sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. His sentencing is set for Jan. 11. It also may result in a postponement of Moore's murder trial, which is scheduled to begin with jury selection Nov. 7. Brill chose not to have a jury trial.
Immediately after reading his verdict, Sweeney, whose ruling clearly implicates Moore as a co-conspirator in Ashley's death, told prosecutors Kim Oldham and Michael Rexroad and Moore's defense attorney, Sheldon Mazelis, that he would recuse himself from the Moore case.
Mazelis said yesterday that given Sweeney's ruling, he wants to put some time between the two cases and will ask for a postponement.
The verdict comes nearly a year after a delivery truck driver, who pulled up to the Pizza Hut restaurant at Route 108 and Bendix Road on Nov. 3, followed the trail from a large pool of blood in the parking lot to Ashley's body, which was lying face up in woods nearby.
She had been stabbed 34 times and strangled, according to trial testimony; the knife wounds cut her carotid arteries and a jugular vein and fractured her skull, a medical examiner said.
Police had few credible leads immediately after the killing, but calls to a tip line set up in the case led them to Moore and Brill, two friends who had picked up Ashley near her Black Star Circle home in Long Reach and taken her to a get-together at the home of some men in Oakland Mills. One of the men at the get-together testified that Brill punched Ashley and that the girl said she wanted to go home.
During nearly six hours of interviews over two days, Brill at first said he barely knew Ashley. Later, he said he watched through a side mirror as Moore stabbed the 14-year-old and dragged her into the woods, later admitting that he choked Ashley, but "not all the way" and stabbed her once in the stomach "after she was dead."
Deputy Medical Examiner Jack M. Titus testified that the stomach wounds were inflicted while Ashley was alive.
In closing arguments yesterday, Oldham theorized that after Brill choked Ashley, the girl stumbled out of the car to get away from the men, but Moore caught up to her and began stabbing her. Brill later took the knife to "finish" what Moore "started," she said.
"What would cause somebody to stab a 14-year-old child 34 times?" Oldham said. "What causes that anger and rage to be unleashed on somebody? She just wanted to go home. That's all she wanted."
But Warren A. Brown, Brill's defense attorney, who has repeatedly called his client's admissions to police unreliable because of police tactics used during the interview process, said that the only thing the evidence proves is that his client was present during the stabbing -- not that he participated. He noted that the killing took place under parking lot lights, a place he said does not match up with a premeditated killing.
Later, Brown said that the evidence provided several "paths" that could lead to different conclusions about what happened the night Ashley was killed.
"The judge found a path to follow and felt confident that that's what had occurred," he said, adding that Brill has asked him about the possibility of filing an appeal.
Outside the courthouse, Ashley's friends and family said the sordid picture of Ashley as a promiscuous teen that emerged during the trial is nothing like the girl they knew -- a girl who once forced a boy to apologize to a friend he had insulted.
Ashley, whose father died of melanoma three months after her death, was a humorous girl known as a "mother" figure, they said. She had been a shy child but had finally "started to blossom," said Marilyn Hopkins of Clarksville, whose daughter was close friends with Ashley.
"My daughter was 14 years old and she was naive ... and she wanted to be liked and she just picked the wrong people," Mason said. "She wanted to go home. They could have let her go, and they didn't."