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Former boxing standout James Berry acquitted in 2008 double murder

A once-promising Baltimore boxer was acquitted of all counts in the double murder trial of Howard Grant and Justin Berry. James Berry faces charges in other cases. (Christopher T. Assaf/Baltimore Sun video)

Jurors listened for several hours as a man prosecutors called a "murder consultant" described in sometimes-chilling detail how he and former Olympic boxing hopeful James Berry killed two men in October 2008.

But after about a day of deliberations, the jury acquitted Berry on Wednesday of all charges in the fatal shootings of Howard Grant, 18, and his cousin Justin Berry, 19.

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Outside the courtroom, Grant's father asked repeatedly: "What does it take" to get a conviction?

"This is why they kill each other," Howard Grant Sr. said. "They can beat it in court."

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Berry's attorneys said the state's case was based on neighborhood rumors, and they assailed the credibility of co-defendant Quinzell Covington, the "murder consultant," who pleaded guilty last month to first-degree murder and conspiracy.

Berry, 27, who was emotional at times during the trial, hugged his lawyers after the verdict was read.

Berry has been charged in six homicides since 2008. He was acquitted of one in 2010 and remains held without bail in three more cases.

Covington became the focal point of a case that went cold for a number of years until he went to police to implicate Berry. During his testimony, he said he retrieved the murder weapons from a stash of handguns in an apartment building laundry room, and instructed James Berry to burn his clothes afterward.

Assistant State's Attorney Adam Ruther told jurors it was rare to have such detailed testimony at a murder trial.

Two jurors, who spoke out of anonymity for fear of their safety, said the defense's assertion that the police investigation came up short was the largest factor in their decision to acquit Berry.

Covington testified that he had given police names of other people involved in the plot, including an alleged getaway driver. But homicide Detective Frank Miller testified that he did not interview those men.

One of the jurors said the detective "came to court empty-handed."

"They didn't have enough," the other juror said of the state's case. "There was reasonable doubt."

Baltimore police spokesman Capt. Eric Kowalczyk said in a statement that "this particular defendant was charged with murder by the BPD, and we stand by our decision to arrest and the state's attorney's decision to prosecute."

Covington is serving 25 years for a 2009 conviction on an unrelated murder in Baltimore County. His cooperation agreement with city prosecutors spared him any additional jail time for the killings of Grant and Justin Berry.

Defense attorney Karyn Meriwether described the arrangement as "three [killings] for the price of one."

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"This man is going to get out of jail," she told jurors in closing arguments. "I don't know about you, but that's the scariest thing I can imagine. You can thank [prosecutors] for that."

Prosecutors said James Berry, Howard Grant and Justin Berry were part of a group of friends in Druid Heights known as the "D-Block" crew. James and Justin Berry are not related.

One member of the group — Brian "Six-Nine" Goodwin — was killed in June 2008. Another friend, Romie Ziegler, was gunned down at Goodwin's vigil a few days later.

The group was shaken and became divided, according to prosecutors.

"We didn't understand where everything was coming from," testified LaShawn Bolling, one of the friends. "All our friends were dropping. We were about looking good and getting money. When Six-Nine got killed … we'd never experienced anything like that."

Grant was shot twice and survived — in September 2008 and again in early October, prosecutors said.

Covington testified that Grant approached him about killing James Berry, but Grant didn't have the money to pay him. Covington said his allegiance to a childhood friend who sided with Berry took precedence, so he agreed to help Berry kill Grant instead.

On Oct. 12, 2008, Grant was shot nine times, including in the back of the head. Covington said he fired the head shot, and James Berry stood over Grant and "finished him off."

Covington said Justin Berry, who was with Grant at the time, was killed because he was likely to seek revenge.

In 2011, Covington reached out to police to implicate Berry, because, he said, Berry failed to come through for him when he was arrested and needed a lawyer. He struck his deal with prosecutors last month.

"Like him or not, [Covington] told you the truth," Ruther told jurors.

Meriwether attacked Covington's credibility. She noted that he neglected to tell police in his initial account that he was one of the shooters.

Meriwether said police got "tunnel vision" on Berry in their investigation, and ignored potential leads. Covington had named four other people who he said knew of the murder plot and were involved, she said, but police interviewed only one of them, and no one else was charged.

The two jurors said they believe Berry was involved. But they said there were too many unanswered questions to convict him.

Berry's next trial, scheduled for June, is for the 2012 killing of brothers Allen and Darien Horton. He is also charged with killing Angelo Fitzgerald in 2011.

In a statement, Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby said she was "confident that my attorneys put forth their best effort to pursue justice for the victims and their families in this case and we will continue our efforts to hold those who commit such cold and heinous acts of violence accountable."

Howard Grant Sr. sat next to Ziegler's mother during each day of testimony. Ziegler's killing remains unsolved. In an unusual move, Grant was called as a witness to detail how his son and James Berry were once friends, and he tearfully recalled being informed of the shooting, and later when he was told his son had died.

During the trial, Grant spoke to The Baltimore Sun about of the wide impact of the violence. His son and Justin Berry were both young fathers at the time of their deaths, and his grandson is now 6 years old.

"Everybody loses," Grant said. "These children are all fatherless. It's a brutal cycle. Every single day I live this. As a parent, you say, 'Damn, I could've done things better.'"

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