The night Eddie Love Anderson, 19, Charles Westbrook, 20, and Darel Alston, 20, robbed 63-year-old Lenny Gerber, they waited for him outside his Pikesville apartment in the rain.
When Gerber arrived home shortly after 2 a.m. May 6, 1989, it was Darel Alston who struck Lenny Gerber, owner of a bar on Hanover Street in the city, twice in the head with an aluminum baseball bat. Gerber died 53 days after the attack at the Shock-Trauma Unit in Baltimore.
In January, a Baltimore County Circuit Court jury convicted Anderson of first-degree felony murder and a judge later sentenced him to life in prison; in April, a county Circuit Court judge convicted Westbrook of first-degree felony murder, but delayed sentencing.
Yesterday, in a decision that jolted prosecutors and friends of the victim, a county Circuit Court jury of five men and seven women acquitted Darel Alston of Columbia of murder in the death of Gerber. But jurors convicted Alston of armed robbery, a crime for which he faces a maximum of 20 years in prison. Sentencing is scheduled Nov. 27.
When asked how he felt about the verdict, James O. Gentry Jr., one of two prosecutors on the case, slumped on a bench outside the courtroom and answered, "Shocked."
Gentry just shook his head in wonder. "What makes this so bad is this guy is the worst [of the three.] He's the hitter."
"I don't believe he got away with anything," said George Alston, 47, father of the defendant. "My son's strong. If he wanted to hurt somebody, he could have hurt somebody."
The elder Alston, and the jury apparently, believed strongly the defense contention that the head injury to Gerber, which caused brain damage and internal bleeding but did not fracture his skull, did not kill him. The defense contended that the victim died, instead, of natural causes, an infection that developed independently of the head wound.
Michele Nowak, an assistant public defender, summed up in closing arguments medical testimony from a former District of Columbia coroner that suggested that although Gerber was admitted to Shock-Trauma for the head injury, it didn't kill him.
Dr. William Brownlee, the former coroner, testified that there was no swelling of the brain or any indication that the head injury led to two heart attacks Gerber had while at the hospital, Nowak said. And there was no evidence that a serious infection, to which Gerber succumbed, came from the head injury.
To prove Gerber was murdered, Nowak said, the state needed to show "an unbroken chain of events" to prove the blows to Gerber's skull led to his death, a chain that she said was broken.
Nowak and another assistant public defender spent months researching the case and subpoenaed hundreds of pages of medical records from Shock-Trauma. They also hired medical experts, including doctors specializing in cardiology, infectious diseases and neurology, to help them interpret the records.
Gentry, in his closing arguments, urged jurors to "look at the bottom line" and employ their "collective wisdom and common sense" to see through the medical testimony.
Holding the bat before the jurors, Gentry implored them to examine it during deliberations.
"Folks, this is a weapon," he said. "On the playing field, it's a bat. Think about it. This is the same bat that Mr. Alston held in his two hands on May the sixth. This is what Mr. Alston used to hit a 63-year-old man in the head with."
After a pause, Gentry's voice boomed, "What would you expect to happen, with two blows to the head? He wouldn't have been in the hospital -- bottom line -- if it hadn't been for this bat."
Yesterday's verdict should have no impact on the earlier convictions of Anderson and Westbrook, said Gentry. "Legally, it shouldn't have any effect. It's two juries, two verdicts."
Nowak said the verdict might have some impact on the Westbrook case, in that Westbrook's attorneys have asked for a new trial and Judge John Turnbull delayed a hearing on the matter until after the Alston case. Westbrook's attorneys want to raise the issue of cause of death, Nowak said.