The defense attorney for a 15-year-old boy charged with taking part in the burglary-gone-wrong killing of a 16-year-old girl told jurors Tuesday that her client was "not a willing participant."
Raeshawn Rivers is charged as an adult for his alleged role in the June 2015 killing of Arnesha Bowers, a City College student. Prosecutors say Rivers and two men decided to burglarize Bowers' home. When she discovered the crime in progress, she was bludgeoned with a meat tenderizer, raped, strangled and set on fire.
Two co-defendants, Adonay Dixon, 24, and John Childs, 22, pleaded guilty last week. Dixon, who prosecutors say conceived the plot, is expected to testify for the state.
Roya Hanna, Rivers' defense attorney, said her client "witnessed unspeakable events" but did not play a willing role. In her opening statement, she said Rivers and Bowers had been dating and enjoyed each others' company.
Emphasizing his age — Rivers was 14 at the time of the killing — and the older ages of his co-defendants, Hanna said: "There was nothing he could've done to protect Arnesha. This is a girl he cared about, and he had to witness horrible things Adonay Dixon and John Childs did."
Rivers is charged with first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder, rape, kidnapping, arson, burglary and armed robbery. In December, a judge ordered Rivers to be tried as an adult, calling the killing a "calculated crime." Rivers' previous attorney had argued then that Rivers was a child who was manipulated.
"There are just some crimes that cannot be mitigated in the juvenile court," a prosecutor said at the time.
Prior to opening statements Tuesday, Circuit Judge Lawrence Fletcher-Hill warned jurors they were about to hear a "horrible" case with evidence that would be graphic and difficult to view.
Assistant State's Attorney Sharon Holback said Bowers was "fascinated" with Rivers, whom she initially believed to be 19, and often visited a home where he was staying in Northeast Baltimore. Rivers did not share her feelings, and on the night of her death agreed with Dixon and Childs to seduce her upstairs while they looted the rest of the home, Holback said.
"His desire to manipulate her … brought about a cascade of horrific events," Holback said.
Bowers heard a commotion downstairs while the burglary was taking place. Holback said Dixon will testify that Bowers was surprised to see the men in the home but "was so kind, she fixed him a plate of food."
Nevertheless, Dixon grabbed her in a bear hug and handed the meat tenderizer to Childs, who struck her multiple times over the head as she pleaded with them to stop, Holback said.
Holback said Dixon will testify that Rivers was initially shocked because it "wasn't what they planned."
But "he sat there and watched them kill her" and "did absolutely nothing."
"This was a group event," Holback said.
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Bowers was raped, strangled with a cord, and her home and her body were set on fire, Holback said. Her dog also died in the fire. The next day, Rivers used his thumbprint access to Bowers' iPhone to send a text message purportedly from Bowers to her best friend, saying she was in Baltimore County with another male.
Hanna, Rivers' attorney, said the two teens had a "cute, happy" relationship and that he had been at the home that night because "he was hanging out with his girlfriend. He liked her, and they liked each other."
She said Dixon, whose plea agreement calls for him to receive 50 years in prison in exchange for his testimony, should be serving multiple life sentences but got a break to "say exactly what the state wants."
Hanna told jurors that prosecutors will have to prove that Rivers could have done something to make "grown men" stop.
The first witness called by the state was Rivers' guardian, who testified that Rivers and Bowers had dated a month before her death. By June, he was calling another girl his girlfriend, the woman testified. She also said she never saw Rivers with Dixon and did not believe he hung out with Childs.