A 20-year-old Morgan State University student on trial for the murder of a furniture store executive was acquitted last night by a jury that deliberated for 10 minutes.
Marc Sean Howell, free for the first time in nearly six months, hugged several of the Baltimore Circuit Court jurors who acquitted him last night of murder, attempted armed robbery and handgun charges in the Oct. 4 shooting of Aaron Levenson, 30, vice president of the Royal Furniture Co.
In the end, the panel of eight women and four men believed Howell's claim that on the morning of the botched robbery he was on his way to get a haircut from a cousin of co-defendant Jeffrey Johnson, 26, a gospel singer who testified against Howell and pleaded guilty earlier this month.
Howell turned down the state's offer of a 50-year sentence if he pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, instead choosing to stand trial.
"We believed him on the stand," said the jury forewoman, a lawyer. "We just weren't convinced the defendant formed the intent or had any knowledge of the robbery." She said the jury deliberated 10 minutes.
"We didn't think Marc did anything," another juror said.
Levenson's parents, Joseph and Tillie Levenson, sat expressionless as the verdict was read.
"Aaron has been violated, again," Tillie Levenson said later. "The victim and the survivors have no rights. Criminals have all the rights."
Levenson, the father of two young girls, was gunned down in the 500 block of S. Monroe St., outside the century-old family business started by Russian immigrants. He was shot once in the abdomen, twice in the back.
The robbers were after two bank bags, which turned out to contain no cash, prosecutors said. He had $7 in his pockets.
Howell, educated in Catholic elementary and secondary schools New Rochelle, N.Y., testified yesterday that he went to the southwest Baltimore neighborhood with Johnson Oct. 4 to get a haircut. Johnson had promised that his cousin, Bernard Brown, who lived near Royal Furniture, would cut Howell's hair.
Howell and Johnson picked up Brown, 23, near the furniture store and were driving to Brown's home on nearby Eagle Street, Howell said. But Howell said Johnson told him to stop the car near Royal Furniture. Howell and Johnson got out.
Brown, who drove Howell's car for a few blocks after Levenson was shot, stayed in the car. Brown testified for the state but was not charged.
Howell, who told police in a statement last October that he knew of the robbery before Levenson was shot, yesterday testified that he had no knowledge of a holdup. He said that he was confused and scared when he gave the statement to police.
Howell said he walked with Johnson past a used-car lot and toward Levenson.
"All of a sudden, Jeffrey put his arm like, up across my chest, and said, 'Gimme the bag,' " Howell said, as his voice trailed off and tears welled in his eyes. "And Mr. Levenson, he like, just smiled. He just smiled."
"He smiled, like either he knew him or said something," Howell continued. "And, next thing I know, Mr. Levenson was falling forward, like in slow motion. I couldn't believe it. . . . I couldn't move. I was in shock."
After Levenson was down, Johnson stood over his body and squeezed off two more shots from a 9mm handgun, said Howell, beginning to cry again. "He didn't have a chance. . . ." Howell said. "Mr. Levenson just looked into my eyes. He just looked at me."
Johnson testified for the state that he and Howell had staked out the furniture store on several occasions before the robbery try. Johnson said the robbery was planned, using information from another of his cousins, Don Derrick Brown, a former employee at Royal.
Don Brown, 25, invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination several times when he took the stand for the defense Wednesday. Prosecutors tried to show that Brown stood to profit from the robbery. Brown testified that he merely told Johnson that it was "unsafe" for Royal employees to carry bank bags on the street.
Prosecutor Gary D. Schenker -- relying largely on the testimony vTC of Johnson and Brown -- depicted Howell as a willing participant in the attempted robbery.
"To find this young man not guilty, you'd have to believe that this entire incident happened because this young man couldn't find anybody to cut his hair," Schenker told the jury.
But character witnesses called by defense lawyer M. Cristina Gutierrez painted Howell as a timid, soft-spoken "follower" easily influenced by others.
Howell lived with his sister, Tracey, in Woodlawn and was working nearly 40 hours a week while taking 12 credits at Morgan, according to trial testimony. He transferred to Morgan last summer from a college in Atlanta.
Howell and Johnson, who faces a term of life plus 40 years when sentenced by Judge Joseph I. Pines April 19, met while working at Ms. Desserts, a Woodlawn bakery.
The bakery's human resources manager testified that she had Johnson and Howell, whom she described as "mousy," share a locker in the hope of strengthening Howell.
"Because he was so mousy and Jeffrey was so assured and confident, I thought that Jeffrey would be a mentor or something," the manager, Fredricka Magwood, testified.