Killer on street, gentleman in court

Even the judge had a hard time understanding how a man so polite in court could be so vicious on the street.

In May 2008, Donnell Lamont Covington stabbed Robert Johnson twice with a knife on James Street, near the B&O Railroad Museum. The second slice severed the victim's carotid artery, and Covington, known as "Lil' Black," left him to bleed to death on the street.

A motive remains unclear, but a jury convicted Covington of first-degree murder after hearing three days of testimony in Baltimore Circuit Court. Throughout the trial, the 26-year-old suspect remained attentive and polite.

He expressed concern when his attorney's wife became ill. He shook the prosecutor's hand when he was convicted. And when it was his turn to speak before Circuit Judge Emmanuel Brown at his sentencing last week, Covington again took the high road.

"The American judicial system is the best judicial system in the world," he told the court. He thanked his lawyer, the prosecutor and the judge. "I can't complain. I got a fair trial. My lawyer did his job, and the prosecutor did his job. I accept it."

Brown wasn't sure what to make of it all. The pre-sentence report described Covington as a career criminal, a low-level drug dealer and a drifter. He completed the ninth grade but didn't make it far into the 10th. His father was absent for much of his life.

Assistant State's Attorney Charles Blomquist noted that the Southwest Baltimore neighborhood where Covington lived improved whenever Covington was in jail. "The community clearly benefited from his absence," the prosecutor said.

Blomquist asked the judge to sentence Covington to life in prison.

The defense attorney, Alan Cohen, noted his client's upbringing but also that he was so polite in court. "With me," he said, "he has been polite, respectful and a gentleman." That, the lawyer said, demonstrates that there "is a chance for him."

Cohen asked the judge to sentence Covington to life in prison but suspend all but 30 years.

Brown pondered his options for a while.

He started to say, "This was a senseless …" but he quickly corrected himself. This is Baltimore. Brown tried again: "This was another senseless killing."

Brown added: "And the one concern I have about you is that the person I see in my court is not the person on the street."

The judge noted that many suspects bring their street demeanor into the courtroom — dressed as corner boys, copping an attitude and mouthing off to everyone, including him. Covington was unfailingly polite, not just to the judge, but to the clerks and to the corrections officers.

"You have been a true gentleman in this court," Brown told him. "Yet I have this horrendous crime."

Covington may have been polite, but he never said he was sorry for killing a man.

Whether or not the judge picked up on that omission is unclear.

What is clear is that Brown sentenced Covington to life in prison, no time suspended.

The judge told him that he would be open to reconsidering the sentence in five years, but even if he lowered it, he warned Covington that he would still spend most of his life in prison.

"I wish you well," Brown told the man.

Then he added : "It' doesn't take a tough person to kill someone these days. It takes a tough person to do the right thing."

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