Jury Duty: Just A Routine Shooting

July 24, 1994|By JON MORGAN

The most remarkable thing about Cedric Robinson's deadly assault on Samantha Butcher was how unremarkable it was.

The 21-year-old Robinson fired both barrels of a shotgun at Samantha's head and, thanks to a well-timed swing of a front door, just missed contributing to the city's record murder toll last year.

As it was, the deadly pellets stayed embedded in the door, and Robinson -- "Pookie" to his friends -- slipped back into the early morning darkness.

For me, and, from what I could gather, the other members of the jury that convicted Robinson, it seemed a horrific ordeal.

The Butcher family had returned only hours before from the funeral of Samantha's 16-year-old brother, Jonathan, who had been ambushed by a pair of gunmen a few doors down from the family's Pimlico home, in front of a church. Jonathan's shooting at 1 a.m., which left a companion badly injured, made enough noise to arouse Samantha and Jonathan's mother, who stepped outside in time to see her son bleeding in the street and the murderers running away.

A few days later, at 3 a.m. the day after the funeral, Robinson came to the home not to pay respects but to settle a score with her other brother, Samantha testified.

"One of your brothers is dead, and I'm going to kill the other," Samantha recalled Robinson saying.

The surviving brother had the good sense, or luck, not to be home, leaving Samantha to face Robinson's rage. He stepped out onto the family's porch and retrieved a sawed-off shotgun from under a folding chair.

She slammed the door, and he pulled the trigger.

As glass from their shattered storm door tinkled onto the porch, Samantha and her mother huddled inside, hoping the gunman wasn't reloading. Eventually the daughter was dispatched in her night clothes out a back door to find a phone to call police.

We jurors spent about 30 minutes deliberating, and most of that was spent selecting among the three charges available to us: assault and two types of attempted murder. We went with second-degree attempted murder; there was little evidence he went to the Butcher home to kill Samantha, more likely her brother.

Robinson, with a pair of drug convictions and one for battery, was sentenced Friday to 20 years in prison and will be eligible for parole in as few as eight. He had been offered 10, with five supended, in a pre-trial plea offer.

During our deliberations, we jurors, with nothing more in common than voter registration, mused at some length about the apparent routine nature of the case and, by extension, how common it must have become in our city for knocks at the door to be followed by blasts of lead.

The police department counts 2,971 non-fatal shootings in the city last year, in addition to 353 homicides. (That count is the number of people actually shot, and does not include people like Samantha, who are shot at and missed.) So common was the incident that the only element that attracted media coverage was Jonathan's murder, one of three in the city that weekend.

The police, rightly as it turns out, thought they had a pretty good case when Samantha and her mother identified "Pookie" as the shooter.

Samantha and her mother knew the man from previous social encounters and were able to describe in detail his red car, red-and-black goose-down coat and weapon.

Robinson helped matters along when police discovered a 12-gauge shotgun in his closet. "That's not the gun I used," he assured his mother, in front of two surprised cops.

Police had skillfully tracked him down. But then the realities of Baltimore's budget-stressed, crime-ridden streets came out at trial.

Robinson was never subjected to the skin test -- familiar to all viewers of cop shows -- that might have revealed whether he'd fired a weapon recently. Police policy, an officer testified he was told, limits that test to cases where someone actually gets hurt; it is not used when someone dodges death by an inch of hardwood. (A Police Department spokesman denies that such a policy exists but said that the test isn't given when there is sufficient other evidence, such as eyewitnesses.)

Along with the shotgun, police recovered 28 rounds of ammunition, both 12-gauge and 410-bore, in Robinson's bedroom. The fearsome, pump-action Winchester did not match the description of the gun used in this crime, but the mismatched ammunition suggested to us that Robinson had, or had once had, a second gun.

(He said the shells weren't his and he didn't know how they got into his bedroom -- suggesting a curious security breach in the room of a man who sleeps with a shotgun in the closet.)

Police testified they made no other effort to find the crime weapon, not even conducting a further search of the house.

And, for that matter, once there was a positive identification of the suspect by the victim, there was little effort to interrogate Robinson or track down witnesses either to corroborate or to refute his alibi. (He testified he was watching videos with friends.)

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