A Baltimore Circuit Court jury took barely 30 minutes last night to find a 20-year-old Morgan State University student not guilty in the robbery-murder last fall of furniture store executive Aaron Levenson.
The verdict, coming after three weeks of testimony, meant freedom for Mark Sean Howell, who had testified that he was "in shock" on Oct. 4 when a co-worker went with him to the Southwest Baltimore neighborhood, pulled out a gun and shot Mr. Levenson on a parking lot of the family-owned Royal Furniture Co.
Mr. Howell testified yesterday in his own defense in the case before Judge Joseph I. Pines. The defendant wept as he described how Mr. Levenson looked "right inside of me" as he fell, fatally shot by Jeffrey L. Johnson.
Mr. Howell and Johnson were to have been tried together, but Johnson, 26, pleaded guilty March 5 to charges of first-degree murder, attempted armed robbery and use of a handgun in a crime of violence as the case was to begin.
Mr. Howell told the jury that he and Johnson went to the neighborhood in hopes of finding a barber who could cut Mr. Howell's high-top "fade" hairstyle. He said that Johnson had told him a cousin -- a man who lived near the furniture business -- could cut his hair and that this was the only reason Mr. Howell had driven Johnson to the neighborhood.
As they drove to the area, Mr. Howell said, they talked about Johnson's daughter. They did not discuss robbery, a furniture store, guns or murder, Mr. Howell testified.
According to testimony, they picked up Johnson's cousin, Bernard Brown, 23, near his home in the 800 block of Eagle Street. Mr. Brown testified for the prosecution and was not charged in the case.
Mr. Howell testified that he and Johnson were standing beside a car lot when Johnson told him, "Come here, let me check something out."
As they walked toward Mr. Levenson, Mr. Howell said, breaking into sobs, "Jeffrey put his arm up on my chest like to stop me, and Jeffrey said something like, 'Give me the bags,' and Mr. Levenson was there and just smiled. That's all he did, just smiled.
"And Jeffrey just pulled the gun and shot him. . . . Mr. Levenson just kind of fell forward in slow motion and I realized he was shot. He was yelling, 'Hey, guys . . . , ' and Jeffrey was yelling at me, I guess."
"I just ran," Mr. Howell said, crying as he spoke. "I'm not a criminal. I have no reason to steal. I have money. I have a job."
"Mr. Levenson just looked into my eyes," Mr. Howell said. "He looked at me."
As Mr. Levenson fell, Mr. Howell said, "Jeffrey just moved back so he wouldn't fall into him." Then, according to Mr. Howell, Johnson stood over Mr. Levenson and "just shot him again."
"I couldn't talk. I couldn't move," Mr. Howell said. "It was shock. . . . I just ran. My feet just moved."
Johnson, who has said he was the gunman, testified earlier this week that Mr. Howell was a willing participant in a plan to rob a Royal Furniture Co. employee as he carried a money bag between the company's buildings in the neighborhood.
According to evidence in the case, nothing was taken from Mr. Levenson, 30, a vice president of the business and the father of two young children. The bag he was carrying held only checks and business papers, and the $7 in his pockets was not touched.
Mr. Howell of Westchester, N.Y., was the product of 12 years of Catholic schooling in New York and had transferred in August to Morgan State from a community college in Atlanta. He lived with a sister in Woodlawn and was working nearly 40 hours a week in the maintenance department of Ms. Desserts, a bakery, to help pay for college.
The Woodlawn bakery's human resources manager, Fredericka Magwood, cried on the witness stand Tuesday while describing how she hired Mr. Howell and Johnson -- and decided to have the "young and inexperienced" student share a locker in the "rough" maintenance department with Johnson.
She said Mr. Howell was "shy, kind of quiet, a little timid, kind of mousy, but he was real motivated: He was going to school. He wanted to make something of his life."
Ms. Magwood described Johnson as a streetwise extrovert she hired in large part because of his church attendance as a member of a gospel music group. She said she had hoped the pairing would strengthen Mr. Howell.
According to Johnson, the robbery plan was hatched during the summer, based on information provided by Mr. Brown and another of Johnson's cousins.
The other cousin, Don Derrick Brown, 25, of the 2800 block of Parkwood Avenue, who worked on a loading dock at Royal Furniture, invoked his Fifth Amendment protection against being forced to incriminate himself several times as a defense witness Wednesday, after Assistant State's Attorney Gary Schenker warned him that Jeffrey Johnson's testimony had made Don Brown a target for criminal charges.
Don Brown admitted, under questioning by defense lawyer Cristina Gutierrez, that he had told Johnson that Royal Furniture employees carried bags of receipts along Eagle Street, between company buildings, and that it would be easy to rob them. He said that he had only commented on what he thought was an unsafe practice, and that Jeffrey Johnson became obsessed with it and began staking out the company four to five months before the killing.
Bernard Brown testified that he was aware of the robbery plan and had agreed to drive the getaway car.