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Lombard Street sniper of 1976 strikes plea deal for new prison sentence of 85 years

The police widow cried as she stepped to the front of a Baltimore courtroom Monday and sat near the man who murdered her husband nearly 42 years ago.

Angela Halcomb steadied herself to speak. Two empty chairs separated her from John Earl Williams, the aged prisoner once known as the Lombard Street sniper.

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“Mr. Williams,” Angela Halcomb said, “I hope one day you get to visit my husband’s grave and beg for his forgiveness, because he’s the only one who can forgive you — him and God.”

Williams, 60, accepted a plea deal Monday in Baltimore Circuit Court to avoid a new trial for his murderous ambush of city police officers on Good Friday 1976. He could be released from prison in about 15 years, attorneys said.

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His previous murder conviction was erased last year because of a high court ruling that found murder trials before 1980 flawed.

Williams’ new trial was to have begun Monday, but he took the deal for 85 years — life in prison, with all but 85 years suspended.

The improbable friendship between a former Baltimore police officer and the man who shot up his squad in the 1976 "Good Friday Shooting."

The widow told the court of her anguish. Her husband, Officer Jimmy Halcomb, was shot in his throat. He was 31 years old, a blue-eyed Marine Corps veteran. Angela Halcomb was seven months pregnant then, and they already had two young daughters.

That night, she was dyeing Easter eggs at home in Baltimore County. A TV news anchor reported a policeman shot in West Baltimore. Then came a knock at her door.

“I didn’t even think it was my husband,” she said. “I didn’t think it until I heard that door — that door.”

Williams sat and listened, his head bowed. His attorney passed him tissues.

Williams entered prison as a troubled 18-year-old who wrote of being abandoned by his mother, of sniffing glue and dropping acid, of dreaming about “war games.” He titled a jailhouse manifesto “The story of a sniper.” On April 16, 1976, he stockpiled hunting rifles and shotguns, then phoned in a warning to police.

“He only called to let everybody know who was responsible for what was about to happen,” Assistant State's Attorney Traci Robinson told the court.

Williams unleashed a barrage of gunfire from the third floor of his rowhouse in the 1300 block of West Lombard St. The night became known as the “Good Friday Shooting.”

He shot Officer James Brennan through the elbow.

“The arm was barely attached,” Robinson said.

He blasted a shotgun at Arthur Kennell, the spray striking the officer’s face.

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“That night ended my career,” Kennell told the court. “I’m totally blind in my left eye.”

Now, his right eye fails from compensating, he said. For years, Kennell buried it all inside.

“I didn’t speak to anyone about this, even my own wife. I just couldn’t bring myself to,” he said. “My hope is he never sees the light of day.”

One after another, Williams’ victims addressed the court. Gunfire wounded Alan Small, too.

“I really hope he goes back and reflects on the collateral damage that he created, and how he affected the lives,” said Small, his voice breaking, “of those of us who survived.”

Williams spent more than 30 years in prison before Maryland’s highest court made a sweeping decision in 2012 — one known as the Unger ruling — that jury instructions were misleading in murder trials before 1980. Prisoners across the state appealed and had their convictions erased. Baltimore prosecutors struck deals with 125 aged prisoners rather than retry decades-old murder cases.

Williams had been sentenced in 1977 to life plus 60 years in prison. His plea deal Monday was for 85 years, and his defense attorney, Natalie Finegar, said he will have served nearly 60 years by the time he could be released for good behavior.

In prison, Williams earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology, his attorney said. He ran the wood shop, counseled younger inmates, and attended therapy for 14 years.

“Mr. Williams spent those 14 years in penitence for what he had done,” Finegar told the court. “He has become a man of faith.”

She described his abusive childhood, telling the court Williams was beaten by his stepfather. He was malnourished and underweight. He was abandoned by his mother, she said.

“She sent him home one day to get her purse while they were at a park and he didn’t see her again,” Finegar said.

Williams did not speak Monday, but Finegar read his testimony from trial in 1977.

“I want Mrs. Halcomb to know, and the rest of the officers that were injured, if I could bring April the 16th back and to start all over again, none of this would happen,” he said then. “Mr. Halcomb had just as much right to be alive today as I do and a little bit more. He has a family and children … I’m not proud of what I have done.”

Williams pleaded guilty Monday to murder and 11 counts of assault. The Halcomb family agreed to the terms of his plea deal. Baltimore Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn said she would have handed down harsher punishment.

“I was horrified by the facts of this case,” she said. “You sit there with both your eyes. … You sit there with both your arms. … I don’t understand why others have to hurt others because they want to hurt themselves.”

Police Commissioner Kevin Davis sat in the back of the courtroom. He said the tragedy will endure forever in the history of the Baltimore Police Department.

Afterward, the sheriff’s deputies led Williams to the door. Balding and gray-bearded, the prisoner didn’t look at his victims as he went by, in shackles, and leaning on a cane.

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