Described by a prosecutor as "a cancer on society" who "deserves to never see the light of day again outside a prison," John Lee Leonard Jr. was sentenced yesterday to life plus 25 years in prison with no chance for parole in the 1989 murder of a former Annapolis High Schoolbasketball star.
Before passing sentence, county Circuit Judge Eugene M. Lerner told the 42-year-old Annapolis man, "Mr. Leonard, I have come to the conclusion you really aren't fit to walk on public streets any longer."
Referring to Leonard's involvement in the July 8, 1989, murder of21-year-old Reno T. Green, Lerner said, "It's just a heinous, senseless crime, the taking of a youth."
Leonard proclaimed his innocence during yesterday's hearing, blaming co-defendant Wendell J. Danielsfor Green's death. "I didn't kill Reno Green," Leonard said.
Speaking in a hurried, excited manner, Leonard said he supported the death penalty for murderers but accused the court of accepting "perjured testimony" from Daniels. Daniels had said he was attempting to collect a drug debt from Green when Leonard shot the former basketball star. Daniels pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and agreed to testify against Leonard in return for a 15-year sentence and incarceration in a "protective environment."
Leonard's claims were dismissed by members of Green's family, who said they were sure Leonard was the killer.
"He got exactly what he deserved," said Gerald Diggs, the victim's 39-year-old brother. Diggs added that his late brother "can rest in peace, fully and finally."
Leonard had faced the possibilityof the death penalty until a ruling last week by Lerner.
A jury found Leonard guilty Nov. 27 of first-degree felony murder -- of committing murder in the course of a felony -- but found him not guilty oncharges of attempted armed robbery, assault with intent to rob and conspiracy to commit robbery and murder.
Because of the acquittals,Lerner agreed with defense attorney Edward Smith Jr.,who said prosecutors could not cite the "aggravating circumstance" that the murder was committed during the course of the robbery. Without a specific aggravating circumstance, or accompanying felony, the state cannot seek the death penalty.
Smith did not fare as well in asking the judge yesterday to throw out Leonard's conviction. The lawyer argued that his client could not be guilty of felony murder because he was found not guilty of the "underlying felonies."
Lerner said testimony thatLeonard was present at the murder scene and may have "aided and abetted" in an attempted robbery was enough to support a felony murder conviction.
Smith, a private attorney from Baltimore assigned to thecase by the public defender's office, said he expected an appeals court to resolve the issue.
Prosecutor Frederick M. Paone produced records showing that Leonard, at age 21 in 1970, had been sentenced to15 years for bank robbery. The records show he was
sentenced to 10 years in 1977 for assault with intent to murder, robbery and a handgun violation, and sentenced to eight years in 1985 for drug violations.
Noting that Leonard had been out of prison for only five months before Green's slaying, Paone called him "an extraordinarily dangerous individual" and said, "I would ask the court to rid society of this cancer."
Lerner, reading from a presentence report on Leonard, said: "It is noteworthy that the defendant's behavior while incarcerated parallels that of his behavior on the street. His attitude was described as militant, belligerent and insolent."
While being held for trial at the county detention center, Leonard "spit on guards, refused orders, attacked an officer, set fires and engaged in a variety of disruptive activities."
After the hearing, Paone said he considered Leonard the most dangerous defendant he has seen in thousands ofcases during his 12 years as a prosecutor.
"I think he thoroughlydeserves every day he got," Paone said. "The people I feel sorry forare the Corrections Department that has to keep someone like him."