A teen-ager who admitted mugging a Baltimore bar owner who later died was convicted yesterday in Baltimore County Circuit Court of robbing -- but not killing -- the man.
Darel M. Alston, 19, who struck Leonard Gerber, 63, with an aluminum bat last year, was found innocent of the charge of murder after a five-day jury trial before Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr. in Baltimore County Circuit Court.
However, two accomplices, Charles "Will" Westbrook and Edward Anderson, both also 19, were convicted earlier this year of felony murder in the May 6 robbery of Mr. Gerber.
Westbrook is awaiting sentencing. Anderson received a life sentence for plotting and assisting in the robbery. Sentencing for Alston is scheduled for November.
Prosecutors James O. Gentry Jr. and Robin Coffin said they were "shocked" by the jury's decision yesterday in the wake of the murder convictions of Alston's accomplices.
"What makes the verdict so bad is that this guy is the worst. He's the hitter," said Mr. Gentry. The state had sought the death penalty for Alston, a penalty that is possible when a victim dies as a result of a robbery.
Mr. Gerber, who owned Lenny's Bar on South Hanover Street, was stalked for several days and later attacked in the parking lot of his Randallstown apartment complex by the three teen-agers.
The assailants, who stole jewelry, a handgun and about $1,000 in receipts from the bar, left the elderly man bloodied at his doorway.
Mr. Gerber was hospitalized at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center. There, he suffered two heart attacks, organ failure and developed a serious infection that resulted in his death 53 days later, doctors testified.
Defense attorneys Michele Nowak and Donald E. Zaremba contended that the state did not produce a "shred of evidence" to convince the jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the head wound caused the victim's death.
Dr. Aurelio Rodriguez, a shock trauma physician, testified that Mr. Gerber's initial head injury was not "life-threatening in itself. In my opinion, he died of infection that led to multi-organ system failure," the doctor said.
"There's no obvious cause and effect," he added, unsure of whether Mr. Gerber's head injury made him susceptible to infection.
"If you asked me if he died directly of the injury, I would say, no. . . . However, if he did not have the head injury he would not have been in the hospital," the doctor said.
Two other physicians concurred, including Dr. Mario F. Golle Jr., an assistant state medical examiner.
Dr. Golle, who conducted the autopsy, said the death was homicide because the initial injury was inflicted during an attack. However, he testified that an "overwhelming infection" ultimately caused the death.
The defendant's father and stepmother, George and Wanda Alston of Howard County, sat in the front row of the gallery during the trial. Their son grinned broadly at them and waved his fingers from his side as he was led into the courtroom.
They smiled reassuringly, but behind the youth's back they winced, cried and prayed as they listened to testimony about the brutal robbery.
Mr. Alston said his son, who wrestled in high school and had wanted to become a state trooper, possessed tremendous strength and would have killed Mr. Gerber if that was his intention.
"You don't know what it means to him to know he wasn't responsible for that person dying," the father said after the verdict.