In courtroom, a fading voice

Dan Rodricks

March 29, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

"All of a sudden, Jeffrey put his arm, like, up across my chest, and said, 'Gimme the bag.' And Mr. Levenson, he like, just smiled, he just smiled."

This is where Marc Howell's voice started to fade. The voice was already difficult to hear. Some of the jurors had been straining and frowning. The judge and the defense attorney had asked Howell to keep his voice up. But now it was fading into nothing, as if a wind had slammed open the doors, crossed the courtroom and blown the voice away.

"He smiled, like either he knew him or said something. And, next thing I know, Mr. Levenson was falling forward, like in slow motion. I couldn't believe it . . . I couldn't move. Jeffrey moved back so Mr. Levenson wouldn't fall into him . . . I was in shock."

Howell raised his right hand and pressed his long, bony fingers against his temple, then against his black, tightly-cropped hair. The image of Jeffrey Jones moving across a parking lot with a gun on a cold October morning flashed through Marc Howell's mind. He closed his eyes. Everyone in the courtroom strained to hear his words, but they were fading into a nervous, feeble whisper, into nothing again. Sentences broke into pieces, as if Marc Howell were losing his breath.

"And then . . . and then . . . Jeffrey came back and stood over the top of him and shot him again . . . just . . . shot . . . him."

He pressed his right hand against his head again. He started to cry.

"For no reason. I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe it . . . He didn't have a chance."

Seconds later, Marc Howell was running away from the body of Aaron Levenson. If you believed his story, Howell never expected to be an accomplice to murder that morning in October -- never expected, in fact, to be involved in any crime that day or any other day.

If you believed him, Marc Howell was an innocent, a naive kid from out of town who didn't know Baltimore, didn't know the streets. He didn't see the potential for violence in the eyes of a co-worker named Jeffrey Johnson. On that October morning, Marc Howell thought he was on his way to get a haircut from Johnson's cousin -- not on his way to a robbery that turned into a murder. If you believed him, Marc Howell didn't know Jeffrey Johnson kept a gun in the camera bag he always carried with him.

Yesterday morning, Howell was on the witness stand in Baltimore Circuit Court. He was on trial for his role -- getaway car driver -- in the murder. Aaron Levenson, vice president of the Royal Furniture Co., was gunned down on his way to work. He was 30 years old, the father of two small children. He was shot once in the abdomen, twice in the back. Police say he was the victim of a botched robbery.

The man who fired the gun, Jeffrey Johnson, already had pleaded guilty and provided prosecution testimony by the time Marc Howell, his alleged accomplice, stepped up to the witness stand. Howell wore a suit, white shirt and tie. The shirt collar seemed too large for his neck. Thin, even a little gaunt, Howell looked 16 instead of 20. He had bright, focused eyes, and he answered questions directly, if softly, looking intently each time at his attorney, M. Cristina Gutierrez. Behind him was a large board with a chart of the streets around Royal Furniture.

Howell grew up in New York. He studied for a year at Morehouse College in Atlanta, received unsatisfactory grades, then decided transfer to Morgan State University. He decided to pay his own way, too. He arrived in Baltimore about a year ago, moved in with his sister and enrolled at Morgan. He found a job. He carried 12 credits at school and worked an eight-hour night. He met Johnson on the job and, as much as it annoyed him, frequently gave Johnson rides home.

One day, Howell announced interest in getting his flat-top cut. Johnson told him he had a cousin who cut hair. It was Marc Howell's story that, the morning of the Levenson murder, he drove to Jeffrey Johnson's house and picked him up with the intention of driving to the cousin's house for the haircut. Instead, Johnson told Howell to stop the car on Cole Street, about a half-block from Royal Furniture. A young man named Bernard got into the car. Johnson ordered Howell to drive on, to make three consecutive rights, then to pull over again, then to get out of the car, then to walk with him toward a car lot . . . And a minute or so later, Jeffrey Johnson was holding up his arm in front of Marc Howell, then firing a gun, then firing it a second and a third time.

"I'm not a criminal. I have no reason to be. I have money. I have a job."

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