HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- The day after Christmas in 1990, Kenny the drug dealer, age 23, bled to death in the hall closet of the filthy apartment where he lived with his girl-friend, Bev, and her 14-year-old son, Eric.
He had been stabbed in the heart by Ron, a cook by trade, who turned 39 years old last Wednesday. Ron was upset and disappointed because what he thought was a quarter-gram of cocaine, bought not from Kenny but from an associate loitering outside of Kenny's doorway, had turned out to be something else, probably baking soda.
Ron admitted stabbing Kenny. However, he said he did it not as an irate consumer who had purchased a substandard product, but in self-defense. Kenny, carrying one knife in his hand and another in his belt, had attacked him, Ron said. He said it was to save his own life that he snatched the knife from Kenny's belt and struck one fatal blow with it.
What I now know about this grimy but otherwise routine criminal case, which occurred in bucolic Harford County, I learned as a member of the circuit court jury that eventually considered the evidence against Ron in a week-long trial. For someone who has covered plenty of murder trials but had never expected to participate in one, it was an extraordinary experience.
On the one hand, it opened a window onto a dark and violent landscape, a world in which evil is everywhere, where lives are poignantly hopeless and frequently short, and where even survivors are little more than human wreckage. But it also demonstrated that a jury of ordinary middle-class people, dwellers on the sunnier side of that metaphorical window, can deal fairly and impartially -- though certainly not unemotionally -- with events from that different world.
At his trial, Ron wore a white shirt and a dark suit and tie; he could have passed for a lawyer. His attorney went to some lengths to show him as a man who, despite a record that was hardly spotless, at least "held a job and maintained a decent home and some semblance of normalcy in his life."
There was no evidence to show Ron was using drugs at the time of Kenny's death. He testified that he bought the quarter-gram of what he thought was cocaine for Robin, a girl friend, though not the girl friend he was living with. The autopsy on Kenny, however, did find cocaine in his blood.
In addition to police, these were the other witnesses:
* Roy, who sold the "beat bag" of baking soda or whatever to Ron. Roy is Kenny's brother, though Ron didn't know that at the time. He is doing jail time now for drug offenses.
* Herbie, Kenny's godfather, who was standing in the parking lot when the stabbing took place and talked to the defendant just before he entered Kenny's apartment. Herbie has known Ron "all my life." He testified for the prosecution that Ron told him he was so angry at being ripped off that he was prepared "to go to the penitentiary" if he didn't get satisfaction. Ron denied saying that.
Herbie was sentenced to 26 years in prison last July for drug offenses, but he is already out and living at home. He and the prosecution said no deal was made to persuade him to testify.
* Eric, Kenny's stepson, who was in the apartment along with his mother, Bev. Bev is now dead. The prosecution found Eric, now 16, somewhere in Baltimore. He was described as a drug user, "a cocaine kid." His testimony was not especially illuminating. Kenny's last word, he said, was "ouch."
The jury, four women and eight men, deliberated Ron's fate for six hours. The state had asked for a verdict of guilty to first-degree murder, but only one juror favored that at the outset. Only one juror, persuaded that Ron acted in self-defense, initially favored a verdict of not guilty. The others were fairly evenly divided between the alternatives, second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter, and that was where the real struggle took place.
A finding of guilty to voluntary manslaughter instead of second-degree, according to the judge's instructions, requires the jury's determination that there were mitigating factors.
Those favoring a verdict of guilty to the second-degree murder charge believed, basically, that Ron shouldn't have entered the drug dealer's apartment; once there shouldn't have precipitated argument; and once having precipitated it should have retreated rather than meeting force with deadly force.
They also argued that if the principals in the trial had been two suburban bankers arguing in a hallway over interest rates, and a knife had been pulled and one had died, there would have been no doubt that the verdict would have been murder. Why, they asked, should the charge be reduced just because the setting was a seamier one?