BINGHAMTON, N.Y. - In a quiet, riverfront city nestled among the hills of central New York, a man goes on trial, accused of killing his mother-in-law and her 14-year-old daughter, execution-style. Homicides are rare here - there has been only one this year - and crimes as violent and deliberate as the shootings of Valerie and Devin Spears are all but unheard of.
To understand why the woman and her daughter were killed, a prosecutor told a Broome County, N.Y., jury this week, you have to look about 260 miles south: to Baltimore County.
There, Vernon E. Parker Jr., a truck driver and part-time bounty hunter, had been charged with sexually abusing Devin in the summer of 2001 while the teenager was visiting her sister, Parker's wife, in Randallstown. The girl and her mother were killed July 20, 2002 - 10 days before the scheduled start of Parker's abuse trial in Baltimore County.
To prevent that case from going forward, prosecutors in Binghamton say, Parker, 34, and an associate drove to New York, forced Valerie Spears and her youngest daughter down to the basement of their stately brick home, told them to lie face down and fired nine bullets from a 9 mm Glock handgun at their backs and heads.
"He missed three times," Broome County District Attorney Gerald F. Mollen told jurors during his hourlong opening statement in Parker's trial. "But he accomplished his purpose because Valerie and Devin never got off that floor alive and wouldn't be testifying in Baltimore [County] Circuit Court on July 30th."
"This isn't a burglary gone bad," Mollen added. "This is an execution."
Defense attorneys said they do not dispute the horror of the killings.
"It's about as chilling and frightening a crime as you or I could ever imagine," William Easton told jurors. "These are truths. We'll never challenge them. Ever."
But he asked jurors to look beyond the purported motive and suggested that someone else might have killed the Spearses, knowing that "the first, if not only, person suspected would be Vernon Parker."
At the hot dog stand just up the street from the courthouse where the trial opened Tuesday and is expected to continue for two to three weeks, owner Phil Bennedum, 53, said the killings that shocked the community two years ago are again on residents' minds.
"People are talking about it," he said. "It's the kind of thing you'd hear about in New York City."
Located at the confluence of the Susquehanna and Chenango rivers, 180 miles northwest of New York City and just north of the Pennsylvania line, Binghamton is a city of about 60,000 residents. Another 140,000 live in the towns that seamlessly stretch out from the city limits. Modern office towers sit alongside historic buildings with ornate architecture, eclectic cafes and an old bridge, strung with white lights, that makes for a pedestrian river crossing and an unusual site for an annual blues concert.
Billing itself as the birthplace of IBM and the carousel capital of America, the greater Binghamton area has an opera company, a zoo, a Division I university and six antique wooden carousels - more, the visitors center brags, than any other county in the country.
The courthouse where Parker is on trial is just across the river from the quiet neighborhood where Valerie and Devin Spears lived. On a street lined with homes covered in gray or white siding, the Spearses' house stands out as one of the most distinctive and attractive.
Neighbors said that Valerie Spears, 50, a widow who worked for a computer company and was active in her church, took pride in her home. The brick structure - a deep red with cream-colored gingerbread trim - has a second-floor balcony where, neighbors say, Devin could be seen belting out her favorite tune or practicing dance steps as if on stage.
"It was pretty much unanimous: Devin seemed to be standing on the threshold of future stardom," said Alvin Charles Lloyd, Valerie Spears' older brother, who lives in Syracuse. He noted that his niece could not only sing, dance and act but also played the flute, clarinet and piano.
A neighbor who enjoyed watching the teenager practice on the balcony or the narrow driveway alongside the Spears home said she can't look at the house now without feeling sad.
"Especially now that the trial is going on. They are missed still," said the woman, who did not want her name published in the newspaper. She said she has received death threats since the killings, and although she suspects they are pranks, she said she remains nervous talking about a case in which a man is accused of killing witnesses.
Both Valerie and Devin Spears were scheduled to testify against Parker in the Baltimore County case. The felony child abuse and third-degree sex offense charges stemmed from an incident that allegedly occurred when Devin was staying in Randallstown during the summer of 2001 with her sister.
According to court records, Devin told her sister - and then described in a written account that her mother found - that on the last night of her visit, Parker led Devin down to the basement of his house and removed her pants and touched her genital area and breasts.
Baltimore County prosecutor Susan Hazlett recently said that she will never forget the phone call she received nine days before she was scheduled to take the case to trial. A county homicide detective told her that Devin and her mother had been fatally shot and that police suspected Parker was involved.
"Oh, I was horrified. I'm still horrified," she said. "He very likely would not have gone to jail in the sex-abuse case, and it seems like such an extreme."
Binghamton police said it was Hazlett's case that led investigators immediately to Parker.
Tammie Parker, who is married to Vernon Parker, testified yesterday that Baltimore County police were knocking on the doors of their Randallstown house at about 5 a.m. on July 21, 2002 - 45 minutes after Vernon Parker returned from what he had told his wife was a bounty hunting trip to West Virginia.
On July 24, 2002, police arrested Vernon Parker and Robert L. Williams Jr., a Baltimore man who worked with Parker at a bail bond agency and who police say accompanied Parker on a trip north to kill Valerie and Devin Spears. No trial date has been set for Williams, 35, who is also charged with first-degree murder.
Prosecutors initially announced plans to seek the death penalty against both men. But in June, 19 days into jury selection for what was then Parker's capital murder trial, New York's highest court ruled that a provision of the state's capital punishment law violated the state constitution.
Prosecutors expect to call 80 to 90 witnesses as they lay out their case against Parker. Among the evidence that will be presented, Mollen told jurors, are cell phone records containing the times and origins of phone calls that he says virtually trace the route Parker and his accomplice drove from Baltimore to Binghamton and then immediately back again.
Prosecutors also expect investigators to testify about the size 10 1/2 shoes that Baltimore County police found in a basement closet of Parker's home on Breeders Cup Circle in Randallstown. The tread pattern on the soles of the shoes matched shoeprints left across the kitchen floor of the Spears home, right down to a square of tape that was stuck to the bottom of the right shoe, Mollen told the jury.
Jurors heard this week from the 911 dispatcher who answered a panicked phone call at 11:11 p.m. from Devin reporting a man in her home. The call lasted only several seconds. The dispatcher heard a muffled scream, and the line went dead.