With Carl Lackl's family quietly sobbing 20 feet away, 17-year-old Johnathan Cornish sat in the witness box and vacantly described how he killed the Rosedale man as part of a Baltimore Bloods gang mission.
He had never met Lackl. He couldn't even remember his victim's hair color. But he shot Lackl three times at point-blank range in 2007 because he was asked to "kill somebody who was telling on [a] homeboy."
The testimony, which Cornish exchanged for a plea deal, came Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore in a case against Patrick Albert Byers Jr. and Frank Keith Goodman. The 23-year-old men are accused of orchestrating Lackl's death to prevent him from testifying as the key witness in a Baltimore City murder trial that year against Byers.
The prosecution contends that Byers, who could face the death penalty if convicted, ordered Lackl's death from his jail cell using a contraband cell phone and that Goodman acted as his agent on the outside.
Goodman's attorney has yet to address the court, but Byers' lawyer, William Purpura, portrayed his client as an innocent man the world was out to get almost from the start.
Byers grew up in a rough part of Baltimore, raised by his grandmother because his heroin-addicted mother couldn't handle the job. His father spent a dozen years in federal prison before reuniting with his 15-year-old son, only to encourage "Pat" to sell drugs.
The young man, who has been incarcerated since his arrest on the original murder charges in 2006, was a street hustler, a narcotics dealer and a schemer, keeping a gun on hand to trade for leniency should he get arrested for a minor offense, his lawyer said.
But he's not a killer, said Purpura, who said Byers was wrongly fingered by street thugs and shoddy work by the Baltimore police. He said they didn't follow up on multiple leads because they're "overworked, underpaid and understaffed."
Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi declined to comment on the allegations, saying the department recognizes that "defense attorneys have a role to play," adding that any work referenced was before Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III took office.
Purpura also outlined lies he says Lackl told police about the day he allegedly saw Byers. Purpura said Byers had no motive for murder (because the Baltimore case against him was "extremely weak") and said DNA evidence suggested that someone else was the real killer in the Baltimore case.
Purpura also denied prosecutors' accusation that Byers intimidated a witness into changing his story this month through more calls he is alleged to have made from jail on a contraband cell phone. The witness actually recanted his story claiming Byers was a killer two years ago, according to Purpura.
Cornish, who pleaded guilty to Lackl's murder and is expected to serve 40 years in federal prison, couldn't identify Byers or Goodman. He had never met them, either. The government says he killed Lackl at Byers' bidding, though he might not have known it because of a complicated chain of command.
In all, eight people are accused of participating in the conspiracy to murder Lackl, 38, half of them Bloods gang members. Cornish said he couldn't remember why he joined the gang when he was 15, and said he didn't know why he said "yes" when asked to kill a man he had never met. It was probably to show that he wasn't afraid to do it, he offered, to "show that I was capable of doing a mission."