Family and friends of Charles Wright got very little satisfaction yesterday when his killer pleaded guilty to manslaughter and received a 12-year prison sentence.
"That was a rotten deal in there," said Clinton Wright, the victim's older brother, standing outside the Baltimore City Courthouse on Calvert Street. "To kill a man for two quarters is beyond belief."
Every day dozens of cases are disposed of through plea bargains, but it is a rare case when the family and friends make their displeasure so clearly known.
Mr. Wright stood up in Judge Elsbeth L. Bothe's courtroom yesterday and told her the deal was bad. He told the prosecutor and he told just about anybody that would listen.
"That was no justice in there. My brother was just snuffed out, and his murderer will be out in three or four years ready to kill again."
It was nearly midnight on Jan. 25 when Edward A. Moss accused Mr. Wright of taking the 50 cents he had placed on the pool table at the Night Owl Bar, a neighborhood joint in the 2600 block of Woodland Avenue where Pimlico residents drink beer, listened to the jukebox and play pool.
Both men had been drinking heavily. Mr. Moss said Mr. Wright took the money. Mr. Wright denied it. They started yelling at each other and chasing each other around the pool table. Finally, one of the other patrons paid Mr. Moss $1 in hopes of settling the argument.
Mr. Moss left the bar but returned a short time later. He stood outside in the cold winter air waiting for Mr. Wright to emerge. When Mr. Wright left the bar about 12:45 a.m., the argument started again.
Mr. Moss had a knife in his hand, and he plunged it into Mr. Wright's chest. By the time Mr. Wright arrived in Sinai Hospital's emergency room, he was dead of massive internal bleeding.
Given those facts, Clinton Wright couldn't understand why Assistant State's Attorney Richard D. Lawlor accepted a plea for the lesser charge of manslaughter.
After the hearing, when Mr. Lawlor tried to explain the legal reasoning for the guilty plea, Mr. Wright stomped out of courthouse, refusing to listen.
"I tried to tell him that there was no way that he [Mr. Moss] was going to plead guilty to first-degree murder and that I was concerned about the facts in the case if we had gone to trial," Mr. Lawlor said yesterday. "By accepting the guilty plea we are in no way justifying the behavior of the defendant. [Mr. Wright] thinks we are."
The prosecutor said there were several troublesome facts in the case. Juries can be instructed to make allowances for crimes committed while a person is drunk. Mr. Wright, a house painter, had a history of assaults, and Mr. Moss would say that he had armed himself in anticipation of an attack.
In addition, Mr. Lawlor said that Mr. Moss struck Mr. Wright only once, and only after the argument had flared again.
Mr. Wright's family wanted Mr. Moss to be convicted of premeditated murder because he had returned with a knife.
"Obviously he was thinking about killing him," said Maria Wright, the victim's sister. "Why else did he leave and come back?"
When Mr. Lawlor entered into negotiations with Gordon Tayback, Mr. Moss' lawyer, the prosecutor was seeking a plea to second-degree murder. He said that he wanted Mr. Moss to be committed to at least a 12-year prison sentence, which is the minimum under the state's sentencing guidelines for second-degree murder.
Mr. Tayback's response was that his client would plead to manslaughter, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years.
Mr. Lawlor countered with an offer of pleading guilty to manslaughter, accepting a 10-year sentence, and pleading guilty use of a deadly weapon, with a two-year sentence that would be served consecutively.
That agreement turned out to be the one that was accepted by Judge Bothe.
"I am less interested in what they call the crime than I am interested in the time he will serve," Mr. Lawlor said. "He is going to serve 12 years, which is the amount he would have received if he had been convicted of second-degree murder."