A Baltimore County Circuit Court jury last night convicted Robert Lee Berry of unintentionally killing a Cockeysville restaurant worker during a Christmastime restaurant holdup, a finding that will probably spare Berry the death penalty.
The panel convicted Berry, 26, of manslaughter in the shooting of John D. Tillman, which demanded only a finding of "gross negligence" in the shooting, and acquitted him of first- and second-degree murder, which required "intent" to kill. But at the same time the jury convicted Berry of felony murder for being involved in a crime resulting in a death, seven counts of robbery with a deadly weapon and using a handgun in a crime of violence at the Sizzler Restaurant in Cockeysville during the Dec. 26 robbery.
His three confederates have all been convicted and will be sentenced next month.
For the defense, however, the key point was the murder acquittal. Twice during the 7 1/2 hours of discussion, the jury sent notes to Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr., asking for clarification of the various charges and the necessity for the state to prove "intent."
The verdict represented a major victory for defense lawyers Joseph Niland and Kirk Osborn, who argued to the jury that the slaying was unintentional.
Ruth Tillman, the victim's mother, said, "I'm glad it's over with."
Prosecutor Peter W. Johnson declined to comment.
Witnesses testified that Berry, of the 3100 block of Sequoia Ave., had threatened Mr. Tillman, 29, with the cocked revolver in demanding that he point out the manager, and then shot him through the head when he did not respond quickly enough.
Berry later confessed to police that he shot Mr. Tillman, but claimed that he had done so accidentally.
The conviction for felony murder technically leaves Berry eligible for the death penalty that the state sought, but the fact that the jury decided the shooting was unintentional makes the verdict a strong mitigating factor against the supreme penalty when Judge Murphy sentences Berry in October.
The jury ordered a presentence report on Berry, and set Oct. 28 and Oct. 29 to hear defense motions against the death sentence. Berry had elected before trial to be sentenced by the judge.
After the verdict, Mr. Niland said, "The jury's verdict is that it was an unintentional killing, which would hardly seem to justify a death sentence."