A 24-year-old Annapolis man yesterday became the third person to plead guilty in the January murder of a city police informant.
Prosecutors said Howard Eugene "Howdy" Stevens Jr. fired the shots that killed 22-year-old Sylvester Wayne "Tink" Johnson as he sat in his car in a back alley near an Eastport housing project.
Stevens, who had been charged with first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder, pleaded guilty yesterday to second-degree murder. In return, prosecutor Frank Ragione dropped the conspiracy chargeand agreed to recommend a sentence within guidelines that show Stevens should be imprisoned for 15 to 25 years.
The plea ended hours of uncertainty about whether Johnson's family would go along with the deal and whether a key witness would show up to testify if the case went to trial. After the plea hearing, Ragione asked a judge to issue a warrant for the arrest of David Marshall "Manzie" Chapman, who had pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in Johnson's slaying and, as part of his deal, had agreed to testify against Stevens.
County Circuit Judge H. Chester Goudy Jr. rescinded the warrant when he was told Chapman had not skipped town after all and,in fact, had been seen in the courthouse earlier in the day.
Talk of a plea bargain began yesterday morning, after defense attorney William H. Murphy Jr. askeda judge to bar nearly every prosecution witness from testifying at trial. Murphy said police were led to the witnesses only through a confession by Stevens that a judge ruled was illegally obtained.
Since the judge threw out the confession, the "fruits" of that statement to police should also be thrown out, Murphy said.
For more than anhour, Ragione and Murphy talked with Johnson's family, trying to convince members to go along with the plea bargain. Barbara Johnson, thevictim's mother, was initially undecided; Remus Medley, her 22-year-old son, could be seen trying to talk her out of going along with thedeal.
"He took my brother's life," Medley said later. "How can you make a deal?"
Barbara Johnson was not in court when Stevens pleaded guilty. Afterward, she sat in a car near the courthouse, tears streaming down her face, and complained, "The system is unjust.
"They let the murderer off, gave him second-degree and gave him a few years and then (they'll) let him out," she said.
Ragione said he could have gone ahead with his case even if Chapman did not show up to testify. Christopher Deon Jones, who has admitted driving the get-away car after the slaying, was ready to testify.
But the prosecutor said he was unwilling to gamble with Murphy's motion to exclude nearly all of the witnesses, which would have doomed the state's case.
Murphy said the case stacked up as a tough one to predict, with possible outcomes ranging from a conviction for first-degree murder to a complete acquittal. "It was just too uncertain for either side to call,"he said.
Three weeks ago, county Circuit Judge Raymond G. Thieme Jr. granted a motion to suppress a statement by Stevens to Annapolis police detective Kenneth Custer. The records do not include an explanation, but court documents show Murphy claimed police "induced" Stevens into confessing by telling the suspect they would "try to get the charge reduced" to second-degree murder if he made a statement.
Thieme has issued a gag order in the case and ordered portions of the court file sealed.
Stevens, in the statement to police, said he wasone of three men who armed themselves and, with a driver, went looking for Johnson. He told police he shot Johnson with a .38-caliber handgun early Jan. 14.
In court yesterday, Murphy said .32 caliber slugs were found in the car. He said co-defendant Gary Ellis "Peanut" Brown was carrying a .32 caliber handgun; witnesses quoted Brown, whose trial is pending, as saying his gun jammed.
Court records show Stevens told police he and his friends went after Johnson because Johnson had threatened some of Stevens' friends over money owed him.
Stevens is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 27; Chapman's sentencing will be Dec. 19.