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Baltimore killer outlines a murder during Berry trial

A Baltimore hit man outlines how to carry out a murder.

Looking at jurors from behind aviator glasses with his 5-foot-6 frame shackled in the witness box, Quinzell Covington outlined how to commit a murder.

He likes big guns — "the bigger the better." He prefers to work alone. Masks and gloves are a must. And, he said, make sure you finish the job.

Baltimore jurors began deliberating Tuesday in the trial of James Berry, a once-promising boxer accused of killing rival Howard Grant and his victim's relative Justin Berry in an ambush on Pennsylvania Avenue on Oct. 12, 2008.

On Wednesday, Berry was acquitted on all counts.

Prosecutors say Berry sought out Covington as a "murder consultant" after twice failing to kill Grant on his own.

Covington, 29, told jurors that he agreed to help James Berry get rid of Grant, with the stipulation that "if I needed someone killed, he'll help me kill whoever I need killed."

Covington, already serving a 25-year sentence for a murder in Baltimore County, pleaded guilty last month in the killings of Grant and Justin Berry and won't serve any additional jail time in exchange for his testimony.

Such detailed testimony from an accomplice is rare, Assistant State's Attorney Adam Ruther told jurors, and he acknowledged that Covington's sentence is "not what he deserves."

Berry's defense attorney, Karyn Meriwether, said Covington is a cold-blooded killer getting off scot-free for giving prosecutors a story that can't be corroborated.

"This man is going to get out of jail," Meriwether told jurors. "I don't know about you, but that's the scariest thing I can imagine. You can thank [prosecutors] for that."

James Berry is accused of five killings, the first two being the shootings of Grant and Justin Berry. The cases are being tried separately. James and Justin Berry were not related.

Prosecutors say the defendant and the victims were once part of a group of friends living in Druid Heights called the "D-Block" crew. The killing of one of the crew in June 2008 led to rumors and questions about loyalty. Days later, another member was killed and the group split.

Covington, who knew the group through his niece, testified that Grant first approached him about killing James Berry. But Grant didn't have the money to pay him. Besides, Covington said, his allegiance to a childhood friend who sided with Berry took precedence, so he agreed to help Berry kill Grant instead.

"I will do you this favor, but someday I will call for my favor, whether it's 20, 25 years from now," Covington testified he told James Berry.

During cross-examination, Covington said he had a stake in the outcome: He and an associate wanted to sell drugs in the area, but the shootings were drawing police attention. Finishing the job would put a stop to it, they thought.

On Oct. 12, 2008, Covington's niece brought Grant and Justin Berry to his apartment, setting the plan in motion, he testified. Covington said he phoned James Berry and told him to meet him behind the apartment building.

Covington said he put on a red jacket and red hat that he would discard before the shooting. The red would draw attention to what he was wearing, which was not how he would be dressed when he did the shooting, he said.

Covington said he retrieved two handguns from a laundry room, handing James Berry a .45-caliber High Point pistol and keeping a .357-caliber Magnum revolver for himself. "I like revolvers," he testified.

Then Covington gave Berry gloves and a mask — "the kind they wear in Colorado, Aspen, where they go skiing," he said.

Covington said he told Berry to follow his lead. "Shoot them in the head," he recalled saying. "We'll get rid of these guys this time. Hit 'em and leave 'em in the street."

Grant, on crutches from a previous failed attempt on his life, was shot nine times, including in the back of the head. Covington said he fired the head shot and James Berry stood over Grant and "finished him off."

Justin Berry was killed because he was likely to seek revenge, Covington said. "That was my idea," he testified.

The shooters ran to a waiting getaway car and "passed off" the guns, Covington said, and he told James Berry to burn his clothes.

Berry "thanked me 100 times," Covington said.

Covington showed no emotion or remorse during his testimony, describing the killings as a task.

Months later, Covington was arrested in another killing, in Baltimore County. He said he called in his favor from James Berry — asking him to pay for his lawyer. But Berry didn't follow through, he said. That upset Covington, who later reached out to police.

"He has a sense of how things are supposed to go, and what was done to him wasn't right by him," the prosecutor told jurors.

Berry's attorney attacked Covington's credibility, noting that his initial account to police omitted that he was one of the shooters.

Police got "tunnel vision" on Berry in their investigation, and ignored potential leads, Meriwether said. Covington had named four other people who knew of the murder plot and were involved, but police only interviewed one of them, and no one else was charged, she said.

Meriwether said the case lacks physical evidence and is based on "rumors and lies." The case had been considered cold for years until Covington "reached out his bloody hands," Meriwether said.

Authorities, she said, "reached out and grabbed those hands."

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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