David Hunter grew up around drugs and violence in East Baltimore, and at age 5 witnessed a man he admired shoot another man at point-blank range in the back of the head.
The young Hunter watched the victim die on the boy's doorstep. His mother told him to act like it didn't happen, sitting him down and making him repeat the words, "I did not see anything." Speaking of it could bring more danger, she explained.
Such experiences set him up for a life of crime as a member of the Black Guerrilla Family, defense attorney Michael Lawlor told Judge Alfred Nance on Friday afternoon at Hunter's sentencing for a 2011 murder.
Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah challenged such notions in a presentation that used soaring rhetoric about the ravages of gang violence. He noted that since the 2013 indictments of Hunter, 28, and dozens of other alleged BGF members, relative peace has returned to the defendant's Barclay neighborhood.
Hunter, Vignarajah said, had become "the agent of fear his mother had warned him of."
"To say his fate was preordained is to lack faith in the free will of so many who grow up in such circumstances," Vignarajah said.
Nance sentenced Hunter to two consecutive life terms plus 40 years. Vignarajah had recommended life without parole. Lawlor had called for Hunter to receive a sentence that would allow him to one day leave prison.
"Before his feet touch the sweet land of Greenmount and 24th, near the neighborhood I love, he'll be an old man," Nance told Lawlor.
Hunter was charged in 2013 with the murder of 40-year-old Henry Mills two years earlier. Authorities believe Hunter was exacting revenge for Mills killing a high-ranking BGF member in 2007. In addition to murder, prosecutors charged Hunter under a little-used state gang statute that added penalties for committing a crime in furtherance of a gang.
Hunter's first trial in the summer of 2014 ended in a mistrial after jurors deadlocked on the charges. But at a second trial this year, Hunter was convicted of all counts.
Lawlor told Nance that Hunter was a victim of the "circumstances of his life," growing up amid poverty, violence and dysfunction. "Mr. Hunter was set up to fail," Lawlor said, arguing for a sentence that would allow him to one day be released.
Hunter was hospitalized at age 8 for depression and anxiety, particularly over the absence of his father. He can "count on one hand the number of times he has seen his father," and those include instances in which his father bought heroin from him or they were incarcerated together, Lawlor said.
Hunter attended Roland Park Middle School, a prestigious school designed as a feeder for the city's best high schools, and was selected to attend City College. But he rejected that opportunity because cousins teased him that "only nerds went to the school." He eventually dropped out.
Surrounded by violence, "sadly, he grew to protect himself and adapt for survival," Lawlor said.
Vignarajah told Nance that gun violence terrorized the Barclay neighborhood, bounded by Guilford, 25th Street, Lanvale and Mund Park, an area "smaller than Federal Hill." Mills' killing was committed in broad daylight on a public street and not far from a playground.
"The gunshots may have rang out … in the 2400 block of Greenmount Ave., but they were intended to echo across that territory," Vignarajah said. "A public execution like that is meant to send a message."
In the three years before authorities indicted 48 alleged members and associates of the gang, there were 30 shootings and homicides in that neighborhood. Many of those cases remain pending, and Hunter still faces charges that he was involved in three other murders and a quadruple shooting.
After the indictments, "in the neighborhood Mr. Hunter blames for his problems, there were two shootings and not a single homicide until May 1" of this year, Vignarajah said.
Mills' family was set to participate in Hunter's sentencing but backed out at the last minute after saying they were threatened with violence if they attended, Vignarajah said.
Vignarajah first tried the case as the head of major investigations for the Baltimore state's attorney's office, and has continued to handle the case despite becoming second-in-charge at the Maryland attorney general's office last fall.
Nance lamented the decline of East Baltimore, ticking off the names of onetime pillars of the community, such as Francis Reynolds, Hattie Harrison and Clarence Du Burns.
At one point in his remarks, Vignarajah said there were "no angels in the city." Nance said he disagreed.
"I do believe there are angels in the city, who without we will not progress … we will not survive," Nance said. "There are other David Hunters; there are other Henry Mills, who will survive without the stench of gangland murder and drug dealing."