Anna Sowers celebrated her 28th birthday in a Federal Hill restaurant yesterday with cake, balloons and good friends. But the most important person in her life, her husband, couldn't be there.
Nine months after Zachary Sowers was robbed and beaten near the young couple's Patterson Park home, he lay across town at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in a persistent vegetative state.
While time has stood still for Zach, Anna has struggled to plan for the years to come - not knowing whether they will include her husband or the dreams they'd shared.
"I've been thinking about my future," she said, sitting at a table at Regi's American Bistro, where friends had gathered to wish her happy birthday. "But it's hard because I'm still in the same place I was nine months ago. I didn't even know if I should get a roommate to bring in some extra money, because I didn't know if Zach was coming back."
Her friends also arranged Neighbors' Night Out, a fundraiser held yesterday to help pay for Zach's medical care. More than two dozen restaurants, including Regi's, agreed to donate between 10 percent and 20 percent of the day's proceeds to his care. A similar event held last summer raised about $13,000.
Another fundraising event, Give Back For Zach, will mark the June 1 anniversary of the attack.
As the months have ticked by and the medical expenses mounted, the likelihood of Zach's recovery has diminished significantly. "It's been so long," Anna said, "that it's slim to none that Zach will ever come out of this."
They had been married less than a year when Zach was punched in the head and stomped during the nighttime street robbery. His assailants took his wallet, money and cell phone. The attack left Zach in a coma and he has never regained consciousness.
In December, Trayvon Ramos, 16, pleaded guilty to attempted first-degree murder and robbery charges. He was tried as an adult and sentenced to life in prison with all but 40 years suspended. The three other men involved in the violent robbery, Eric Price, 17; Arthur Jeter, 18; and Wilburt Martin, 19, testified against Ramos in exchange for eight-year prison terms.
As part of their plea bargains, the defendants will not face additional charges if Zach Sowers dies.
Anna was so frustrated with the process and outcome of the trials that she is considering going to law school. She said eight years in prison was "a joke" for the three defendants who agreed to testify against Ramos, particularly since they never actually testified. As for Ramos, she questioned whether 40 years was long enough.
"That means he will be eligible for parole in 20 years," she said. "I looked into his eyes, and he seemed like an evil person, completely soulless. I don't know if 20 years will rehabilitate him."
"I don't like to think about them," she added, "but those four people have damaged so much of our lives. I wonder if they even realize it."
She plans to take the legal exams required to get into law school in June, and to complete her MBA from Johns Hopkins in August. She's also working with her General Assembly representative, state Sen. George W. Della, to craft a piece of legislation dubbed Zach's Law.
"It addresses all of the issues that have somehow touched Zach's case that I've had to deal with that I couldn't believe I had to deal with," she said. "There was so much that felt wrong to me."
Those issues range from difficulties accessing Zach's credit card account to the inability of prosecutors to charge his attackers with murder despite his very slim recovery chances. She wants judges to require that the courtroom remain silent when victims confront those convicted of harming them or a loved one. Instead of listening while she told them of the harm they'd done, Zach's attackers talked to their attorneys and defendants' family members walked out of the courtroom, she said.
"It was rude," she said. "That was my time to say my piece."
She and Zach have received several wedding invitations recently, including one from Zach's sister, who is getting married in October. "Life still goes on," Anna said. "But it's hard. We all still hope for a miracle and pray it will happen."
They never told anyone, but she and Zach used to talk about moving somewhere far from Baltimore as an adventure while they were young and before they had children.
"There is a little part of me that wants to go out West," she said, "because it's fulfilling a dream that Zach and I shared."