An Anne Arundel County jury acquitted a restaurant cook yesterday of murder charges in the slaying of a 37-year-old man who was shot in August at a Glen Burnie apartment complex where he went looking for cocaine.
Rodney L. Conyer Jr., 21, of the 100 block of Faywood Court, Glen Burnie, embraced his lawyer, Timothy Murnane, in a minute-long bear hug when the verdict was announced.
His relatives hugged each other in the benches a few rows behind them.
"I believed from the start that he was innocent. I prayed every night for him, and now I know that he was," said Wayne Maddox of Stevensville, Mr. Conyer's nephew.
The jury of six men and six women deliberated for an hour and 45 minutes before acquitting Mr. Conyer of first-degree murder in the death of James W. Helphenstine, of the 1100 block of Wharf Drive in Pasadena.
Mr. Helphenstine was shot in the back about 4 a.m. Aug. 22, 1992, in the Valley Brook Apartments on Southbridge Drive.
Jurors in the four-day trial before Circuit Judge H. Chester Goudy Jr. said the prosecution's case was based too much on sketchy reports from unreliable witnesses and failed to include any physical evidence that connected Mr. Conyer directly to the murder.
Mr. Conyer, who had been a cook at the Rumble Fish tavern in Glen Burnie before he turned himself in shortly after the killing, also had been charged with armed robbery because police said the victim had been robbed of a gold ring and $100 in cash.
Jurors said they were troubled by the lack of a murder weapon, fingerprints linking Mr. Conyer to the killing and any explanation as to what happened to the ring and the cash.
"Somebody saw him running from the place, but that's all they had. They didn't see him with a gun, or anything that definitely said he was involved," said one juror, a 20-year-old college student, who requested anonymity.
Assistant State's Attorney Robert J. Bittman said he was "very disappointed" by the acquittal.
He acknowledged that the witnesses' credibility hurt his case.
"If the same statements were made by people who were employed, who dressed nicer and who didn't have criminal records, they might have convicted him," Mr. Bittman said.
According to testimony, Mr. Helphenstine rode in a car driven by Linda Young, a woman he had met earlier that night, to Valley Brook to buy cocaine.
He got out of her car, met with a suspected drug dealer and walked with him behind a trash bin where he was shot, according to testimony.
He stumbled back to Ms. Young's car and died as she was driving him to North Arundel Hospital, Mr. Bittman said.
Mr. Conyer was charged after two of his neighbors in the complex, Clarence Bristol and William Ennis, told police he came to their apartment and admitted to the killing.
Police also found a pair of blue bib overalls in Mr. Conyer's apartment. A neighbor said she saw someone wearing blue overalls fleeing the scene.
Officer Dirk Rinehart, a former homicide detective, testified that Mr. Conyer changed his story when he was interviewed and admitted to being near the shooting scene only after he learned that he was seen there.
But in the four-day trial, Mr. Murnane focused on the credibility of Mr. Ennis, Mr. Bristol and Ms. Young.
He had a neighbor testify that Mr. Ennis was unreliable and forced Mr. Bristol to admit on the witness stand that he sold drugs in the neighborhood.
Mr. Murnane also made sure jurors knew that police found purses belonging to the victim's nieces in the back seat of Ms. Young's car.
"This is a case that just screams reasonable doubt," he said.