Confronted with the muzzle of a gang member's gun in East Baltimore, 12-year-old Sean Johnson thrust his hands in the air and called out for his mother.
"Shut up, bitch," the shooter told him. The gunfire that followed, unleashed by the gunman and his brother on a warm May night in 2011, left the boy fatally wounded and three others hurt.
The shooters, half brothers Danyae Robinsonand Derrick Brown, had been out for revenge after an attack on a senior figure in the Black Guerrilla Family. When they couldn't find their target, they lashed out at the first people they saw.
"The facts of this case chill your bones and break your heart," said prosecutor Thiru Vignarajah as Robinson and Brown returned to court Friday for sentencing. The men sat chained at the trial table, the courtroom ringed by a half-dozen correctional officers and three sheriff's deputies.
Judge Timothy J. Doorysentenced Brown, 21, to life in prison plus 115 years and Robinson, 31, to life plus 120 years.
As he handed down the prison terms, the men's mother sat in the back row of the court wearing large, dark sunglasses, with her arms folded. A woman near her held a box of tissues and cried.
Two of the surviving victims and Sean Johnson's family sat quietly, their faces displaying no emotion.
Six months after the shooting, prosecutors and police thought the case had gone cold. But Vignarajah said investigators ultimately were able to piece together the reasons for the attack, drawing on witnesses who could explain the cycle of shootings and revenge.
The break came when a third man involved in the shooting, Antwan Mosley, came forward after being arrested on a drug charge. Mosley said he had been taken on the revenge mission to help pick out the target, who has only been identifiedas "Critic."
The trio circled the block but couldn't find him, prosecutors say. Instead, Robinson and Brown lashed out at random, firing at least 15 shots at the youths gathered in the 1700 block of Cliftview Ave.
"They came around the corner blasting," Doory said.
Their intention, prosecutors said, was to send a message and attract the attention of the man they sought.They believed that man had shot their commander in the BGF.
"These were vulnerable victims," Vignarajah said, and the murderers' actions showed "utter disregard for anyone's life."
Mosley, 23, cooperated with investigators and testified for more than a day at Robinson's and Brown's trial. The gang leader, arrested on a separate shooting charge, testified as part of a plea agreement with prosecutors. He is serving a 25-year sentence.
Mosley pleaded guilty to a murder conspiracy charge. Despite praise from prosecutors for his help, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
"If I could go back and do the day over, I would probably have tried to do anything to stop the events from taking place," Mosley said at his sentencing in April. "I would like to — on the record — apologize to the kid's family because I never got the chance to do that."
On Friday, Vignarajah said the case was especially cruel because all four victims had been ensnared in a world of violence that they seemed on course to avoid.
Sean Johnson was an honor student at his middle school and a football player. The other three victims have graduated from high school and found jobs — one could not attend the hearing because he had to work.
"These were all young boys who were growing up in a tough part of town who managed despite all the pressures to stay on the straight and narrow," Vignarajah said.
Sean Johnson's family turned down a chance to speak, but Vignarajah read a letter they had prepared.
"Our life will never be the same," he read. "Sean will never know what it was like to graduate middle school."
Russell A. Neverdon, who represented Brown, said his client had ambitions of his own but had been led astray by drug use. He asked the judge to impose a 30-year sentence, one he hoped would give Brown "more than enough time for reflection and rehabilitation."
Roland Brown, Robinson's lawyer, expressed his client's sympathy to the victims.
"There is no payback for a life being taken," Brown said. He, too, asked for a 30-year term for his client.
Doory, who watched stone-faced from the bench, was unswayed. "The consequences must be faced," the judge said.