A small-time East Baltimore drug dealer admitted burning the home of a neighbor he believed was "snitching on people" and just before being sentenced to life in prison yesterday tearfully told relatives of the seven victims that he had wished for his own death as punishment.
Relatives of Carnell and Angela Dawson and their five children, who were killed in the blaze at their East Preston Street rowhouse in October, sobbed as Darrell L. Brooks, 22, faced them in a crowded federal courtroom and shakily apologized for the crime, which outraged the city and drew national attention to Baltimore's struggle against deadly violence.
"I thought the only way I could pay for my actions was with my own life," Brooks said as tears rolled down his cheeks. "I'm sorry. I'm truly sorry. ... I will never, ever, as long as there's breath in my lungs, I will never forgive myself."
The courtroom scene came as Brooks pleaded guilty yesterday to an arson resulting in the deaths of seven people, a charge that could have carried the federal death penalty. Prosecutors said they accepted the plea deal to guarantee a conviction and life sentence without parole for Brooks, who investigators said set the fire in retaliation for Carnell and Angela Dawson's repeated calls to police about neighborhood drug dealing.
Speaking at a news conference, U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio said that Brooks' mental capacity was so diminished that there was a chance that he could have been precluded from facing a death sentence. DiBiagio said his office also wanted to help bring closure to the Dawsons' relatives, who now know that Brooks will die in jail.
"He's got another 50 or 60 years to think about what he did every day while he sits in that cell," said DiBiagio, who called the case a sad waste of human life. "What a colossal waste - seven people are murdered by this drug punk."
DiBiagio said no one else would be charged, and the case is closed.
Court records describe Brooks as a "sometime drug trafficker" with a string of arrests, mostly involving relatively small amounts of narcotics: six baggies of heroin in one stop, three vials of crack cocaine in another. The Dawsons, meanwhile, were known in their Oliver Street neighborhood for making frequent complaints to police about drug activity. Records showed the couple made at least 34 calls to police between June 26 and Oct. 9.
Describing in court yesterday the case built by city police and fire investigators and agents with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason M. Weinstein said Brooks had showed increasing antagonism toward the Dawsons in the days and weeks before the fatal fire.
As part of the plea deal, Brooks admitted an earlier attempt to set fire to the family's home, on Oct. 3. Weinstein said Brooks told some of his drug associates that he had thrown two "cocktail bombs" into the house because "Mrs. Dawson was snitching on people."
One witness told authorities that on Oct. 15, shortly before setting the fire that killed the Dawsons, Brooks told a friend that although the "first time" had not worked, "he was going to make sure he 'gets' Mrs. Dawson this time," Weinstein said.
A few hours later, about 2:20 a.m. Oct. 16, Brooks kicked open the door to the Dawson home at 1401 E. Preston St., doused the front hall with gasoline and then set it on fire, authorities said. In court, Weinstein described how the fire spread across the first floor, then climbed to the second and third floors where the Dawsons slept.
Angela Dawson, 36, was killed in the fire along with the five children: Lawanda Ortiz, 14; Juan Ortiz, 12; Carnell Dawson, Jr., 10; and Kevin and Keith Dawson, both 9. Carnell Dawson Sr., 43, escaped the fire by leaping from a window. He was found unconscious on the sidewalk outside and died from his injuries a week later.
Carnell Dawson's sister Alice McNack described in court yesterday hearing the news about the fire as she drove to work that morning and filling with dread as she realized it could be her brother's family, a fear confirmed in a call to her cell phone a few minutes later.
McNack, one of six relatives to speak in court yesterday, told U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis how Carnell and Angela Dawson had created a loving, welcoming home. Often Carnell Dawson would hold cookouts for neighborhood children, even when the food bill pinched a tight budget.
"My brother taught his children what maybe Darrell Brooks didn't get at home - love of family," McNack said.
In one tearful address after another, relatives recounted the horror of the crime and the profound loss felt during the past year. Novella Solomon, another sister of Carnell Dawson's, said that because she could not afford to travel from her home in Oklahoma to Maryland, she hadn't met Angela and the children until she came to Baltimore for their funeral.
"We went to the cemetery yesterday, and it was again just like saying hello and goodbye to them at once," Solomon said.
Tameka Evans, Carnell Dawson's daughter from a previous relationship, said she has three sisters on her mother's side of the family who live in Kansas and whose ages are similar to those of the half-brothers she lost in the fire, Kevin, Keith and Carnell Jr.
"I have to live watching my sisters grow up and thinking what my brothers would be doing at that stage in their lives," Evans said. "I'm really trying hard to forgive, but it's going to be a long journey."
Near the end of the 90-minute hearing, at the point where attorneys typically argue for long sentences or for leniency, there was little left for Assistant U.S. Attorney John B. Purcell or Maryland Federal Public Defender James Wyda to say.
Purcell called a sentence of life without parole the "fair, just and only possible sentence resulting from this case" and said the Dawsons' relatives should serve as a reminder "for the need for good people to not have to stand alone."
Wyda explained how his client offered to plead guilty and volunteered to face the death penalty as he struggled to absorb the "shock and horror of the consequences of his actions." But Wyda said Brooks' life was properly spared: "He, too, remains one of God's children, one who has touched those who have defended him, and we care for him deeply."
Without elaborating, Wyda described Brooks as "ineligible" for the death penalty. He declined to comment later about DiBiagio's assertion that Brooks was "brain damaged."
As is customary in federal sentencing hearings, Garbis then offered Brooks a chance to speak. The lanky young man rose from his chair and apologized to Garbis for turning his back on the judge but said his comments were intended for the Dawsons' relatives. Facing a packed courtroom, Brooks' voice broke, but he went on to speak for several minutes about his remorse.
Brooks said he had wished for a death sentence but ultimately chose to spare the Dawson relatives and his family the pain of a protracted trial and appeals process. Brooks' mother and several other relatives were in court but declined to comment.
"I didn't think I deserved life in prison. I thought I deserved nothing but death," Brooks said. "Then I thought, 'No. The pain's got to stop somewhere.' "
Crying harder, Brooks said he had known and loved the Dawson children: "I didn't mean it. I swear I didn't mean it. I swear."
When Brooks turned back to face the bench, Garbis accepted his guilty plea and handed down the life sentence. The judge called the outcome of the case just and said the sad case made clear that what is needed "is to find a way to solve the problems so another generation of kids - which includes people like Mr. Brooks - is not led down the same path."
In statements after the court hearing, Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy and Police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark said the case should serve as a rallying call to the city and a warning shot to other young criminals - what Clark called young men "in the drug game."
"Within yourselves, you have the ability to listen, the ability to show respect and the ability to know right from wrong," Clark said. "But don't wait to show those abilities until you are a defendant, standing before a judge who is sending you to jail for the rest of your life. Get out of the game now."
Baltimore Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. quietly recalled standing in the Dawsons' burned-out rowhouse, in what had been the children's bedrooms, on the morning of the fire last year. He called the outcome in Brooks' criminal case a welcome end to the story.
Angela Dawson's mother, Donnell Golden, left U.S. District Court yesterday clutching a small white teddy bear decorated with a butterfly lapel pin - both given to her by Angela on Mother's Day last year. Golden said she wants to forgive Brooks but can't just yet.
"It's all so unbelievable," Golden said, fingering the bear, which she said she carries with her at all times. "You know, it's like a dream. And maybe someday you'll wake up and find out it's not true. But we know it is."