Levi Watkins, the pioneering cardiac surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital, remembers the date — January 15 — because it was the anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther King Jr., and because what happened that night still makes him ache.
It was 1979, and Watkins, the first black chief resident in cardiac surgery at Hopkins, had just left his office after conferring with a senior medical student named Alan Trimakas. They had agreed on the subject of a research project — cardiac neoplasms, tumors of the heart or heart valves. "We were both excited about the work," Watkins recalls.
Arriving at his apartment in Mount Vernon, he received a phone call to return to the hospital. A Hopkins student had been shot. "The residents ran the emergency room in those days," Watkins says. "When I got there, they had already prepped [the victim] for surgery in the ER. But I could see right away, he was in deep trouble, with a gunshot wound of a major artery. Once I saw the injury and the blood loss, I knew there was no chance."
Then Watkins lifted the surgical sheet to see the face of the young man he was about to pronounce dead. It was Alan Trimakas. "Oh, my Lord," Watkins said. "Lord have mercy ..." Nothing had so shocked him before, nothing since.
A promising medical student had been shot as he tried to flee from teenagers who accosted him near one of the greatest hospitals in the world. The crime rocked the Hopkins community and forced the hospital administration to respond to an outcry for more security around the Broadway campus.
Watkins, a native of Alabama who had been a champion of racial equality, was concerned about how Trimakas' death would affect the fragile and sometimes fraught relationship between the hospital and the mostly black, mostly low-income neighborhoods around it. "Part of my whole thing in life has been about harmony," he says. "My first concern was about [Trimakas], of course, and his family, but then about his classmates, the hospital and the community around us."
Watkins, one of Hopkins' eminent surgeons, was among several people who contacted me after my column of July 6 about the Trimakas killing, a dark memory brought back to light because of a Maryland Court of Appeals ruling. Known as the "Unger ruling," it has forced the judicial review of dozens of old cases the state's highest court found to be constitutionally flawed. One of them is the case of James Featherstone, the teenager convicted of killing Trimakas and sentenced to life in prison.
A hearing on the case is set for Tuesday in Baltimore Circuit Court. Featherstone, now 51, could be granted a new trial or released from prison.
The fatal shooting of Alan Trimakas was just one of close to 9,300 homicides during the last 35 years in Baltimore, most of the victims remembered over time only by surviving friends and kin.
But there's a particularly haunting aspect to this case — the wasted life of someone who wanted to save lives, an infuriatingly senseless shooting that stands out from a four-decade pile-up of some of the worst urban violence in America.
And there's that other side, harder to see and to feel and to care about — the wasted life of the Featherstone youth, now a middle-aged man, who committed the crime.
"The two awful realities," says Michael Millemann, the University of Maryland law professor who has worked on Unger cases, are "the loss of human life and the intergenerational effects of murder, on the one hand, and, on the other, the civil deaths of lifers, especially those incarcerated as teenagers, who have grown up in prison, and the intergenerational losses for their families."
Making the case for Featherstone in 2014, Millemann says, does not require minimizing the death of Trimakas in 1979. The point is, Featherstone and other Unger-ruling defendants did not get fair trials.
Trimakas family members — his elderly parents in Ohio, his scattered siblings — have been notified of Tuesday's hearing by the Baltimore state's attorney's office and will have some say in this.
Trimakas' brother, Edmund, thinks prison is where Featherstone should remain. He disagrees with the Unger ruling, which found a fundamental flaw in the instructions Maryland judges had given juries in criminal cases before 1980. Ed Trimakas sees the ruling as illogical revisionism, an attempt "to change some of the prevailing conditions of nearly two generations past."
He has prepared a lengthy statement about how the murder of his brother affected his family, how it ended a dream of immigrant parents to have a son become a doctor, how it made impossible the reconciliation of brothers who had feuded, how a sister will always associate her birthday — January 15 — with the death of her brother.
"Yes, a lot of time has passed," Ed Trimakas says. "The pain is different than it was so many years ago, but the memories persist, and the longing of what is missed and should have been persists."