Life in prison awaits teen

The Baltimore Sun

By all accounts, Lewin C. Powell III had been a model private-school student, an affable fellow with a sterling academic record and a bright future at a prestigious college, the pride of his teachers and relatives.

At some point last year, though, something went wrong. He felt pressured and overwhelmed but kept it from everyone, even his best friend. When his mother scolded him about his deteriorating grades at McDonogh School, prosecutors said, he went after her with a baseball bat.

On Friday, Powell, who turned 17 last month, was sentenced in Baltimore County Circuit Court to life in prison in the bludgeoning death of Donna Rosemarie Campbell-Powell in the family's Towson home. A charge of attempted murder in an attack on his father was dropped as part of a plea arrangement.

"Everybody looks for some way to reconcile this," Judge Kathleen G. Cox said, her voice quavering as she parsed the contradiction between Powell's obvious "promise and ability" and the "heinous nature of the crime."

Cox acknowledged the familial tensions typically caused by "an adolescent suddenly not working up to his potential," but she rejected the defense's argument that the boy had cracked under pressure.

"This wasn't some 'snap' thing," the judge said. "This was an event that spanned 15, 16 hours," she went on, describing the initial argument, Powell's "unspeakable" killing of his mother on May 13, 2008, and the attempt on his father's life the next morning, an attack that left the man with two skull fractures.

Cox said she would recommend that Powell be sent to the Patuxent Institution, a maximum-security facility with a psychiatric and educational treatment program for young offenders. He could be eligible for parole in 15 years. As a first-degree murder convict, however, any parole would require the governor's approval; such approval has not been granted since 1994.

Before the sentence was pronounced, Powell was given an opportunity to address the court. He declined. When the hearing was over, he was led away by a pair of sheriff's deputies, without looking at his father or other family members in the courtroom.

Assistant State's Attorney Charles R. Gayle said during the hearing that Powell "certainly had the ability to know right from wrong." Despite the boy's reputation as a "standout individual," Gayle said, "the fact that we are stuck with is that the defendant killed his mother in a brutal and drawn-out fashion, and attempted to kill his father, too."

Gayle said that even if one were to accept the notion that Powell felt harassed by his mother, a 39-year-old employee of the county's Office of Budget and Finance, "there is no explanation whatsoever for the attack on his father."

Prosecutors made much of the young man's apparent lack of regret for the killing, and the nonchalance with which he related the events to a homicide detective shortly after his arrest.

The detective, Al Barton, the only prosecution witness to testify at the sentencing hearing, said Powell seemed "very matter-of-fact," even relaxed, as he explained what had happened that day in the family's home in the Riderwood area of Towson. Barton said Powell's "carefree" demeanor was consistent throughout his recounting of how he had chased his mother "through the house to keep her from escaping" and his decision to kill her with a bat.

Equally calm, Barton said, was Powell's explanation of his placing a plastic bag "over her head so that blood wouldn't drip through the house" and his choice of "junk" in the garage with which to hide her body. "He described going to sleep with the bat next to him so that he could kill his father the following day," Barton said.

The boy's father, Lewin C. Powell Jr., told the judge that, apart from the murder charge that had brought his son to the court's attention, "nobody ever said anything bad" about him. "He don't know why" he killed his mother, the elder Powell said, adding that justice would best be served by "helping him figure out why he did it."

"I think the devil got in him that night," Powell said. "That morning, when he attacked me, I can see in his eyes that it's not him. I can hear it in his voice."

Powell said he had forgiven his son and would welcome him back home "today, tomorrow, anytime."

"Prison is not going to help him," Powell said. "Prison is going to make him worse."

His sentiments were echoed by other relatives, some of them tearfully.

Dawn Campbell, the victim's sister, said the young Powell is a "very sweet, sweet kid" who "never got into any trouble" and "never disrespected me in any way."

"Something happened to him," she went on. It's a mystery, she said, as to "why he couldn't contain his anger."

Another of the victim's sisters, Marcia Campbell, said the boy used to mow her lawn and help her carry groceries, always had a positive outlook and excelled in school, but was not "street smart."

"Our parents didn't raise us to be criminals," she said, tears streaking her face. Turning to her nephew a few feet away, Campbell asked him, "Why didn't you reach out to us if there was something mentally wrong?"

Adam Bossett, 16, who described himself as Powell's best friend, said they had wanted to go to college together, perhaps to Duke University. "What happened with Lewin is not the person he really is." Bossett said, "I know he's really sorry for what he did - I hope you can see that."

Jodene Bossett, Adam's mother, said she had asked Powell during a visit at the Baltimore County Detention Center why he had not asked for help if things were going awry. " 'I thought I could handle it by myself,' " she quoted him as saying.

"We don't understand the challenges our children face," she said.

The Powell case was the second time in a matter of months that a county teenager was accused of killing a parent. In February 2008, Nicholas W. Browning, a 15-year-old Dulaney High School sophomore, was arrested on murder and handgun charges in the deaths of his parents and two younger brothers. He was sentenced this year to two consecutive life terms, meaning that, with good behavior, he could be eligible for parole in 23 years.

Nancy Love, who was Powell's dean during his sophomore year at McDonogh, which he attended on a scholarship, said Powell was a hard worker and avid sportsman whose basketball team had a 20-0 season his freshman year. He also did well in several honors and Advanced Placement classes at the Owings Mills school, earning a 3.72 grade-point average in the ninth grade.

JoAnn Van Collom Hutchinson, Powell's first-grade teacher at Padonia International Elementary School, recalled him as being "everything every teacher ever dreams of, in one kid."

Through her tears, Hutchinson said she had "never been so upset" as when she heard that her former pupil had been charged with murder. "Oh my God, he cracked," she recalled thinking. "Something absolutely put him over the edge."

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