Guilty plea made in professor's murder

January 10, 1995|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Sun Staff Writer

A Waverly man pleaded guilty yesterday to first-degree murder in the death of William H. McClain, a retired Johns Hopkins University professor who was attacked during a robbery last May on the front porch of his Oakenshawe home.

Prosecutors will ask that Keith T. Curtis be sentenced to life in prison, but Curtis' lawyer will ask a judge to suspend all but 20 to 35 years of the sentence. Curtis, 27, will be sentenced March 6 by Baltimore Circuit Judge Roger W. Brown.

Curtis admitted punching Dr. McClain, who fell and struck his head on the porch's concrete step and two days later died of brain injuries.

Andre Jose Davis, 21, also pleaded guilty yesterday, to conspiracy to commit robbery, and was sentenced to six years in prison. Prosecutor Gary D. Schenker said Davis, of the 3700 block of Yolando Road, was a look-out for the robbery.

Dr. McClain, who was 77, was a lover of German literature who taught at Hopkins from 1953 to 1982. He was chairman of the German department for a decade.

He was attacked May 14, 1994, when he and a friend returned from an evening at the ballet to his home just blocks from Hopkins' Homewood campus. The friend, 75-year-old John Hirschfield, said Dr. McClain was wounded as he was entering his house in the 3400 block of Oakenshaw Place to retrieve some strawberries for his friend.

"The last act he did was an act of kindness, which sort of summed him up," said Mr. Hirschfield, a retired professor from St. Mary's College. Mr. Hirschfield also was punched, and his wallet was stolen in the incident.

Curtis, of the 700 block of Melville Ave., pleaded guilty yesterday under a law dictating that a murder committed during a felony -- in this case, the robbery -- is first-degree murder. His lawyer, Leslie A. Stein, said he will argue that part of the sentence should be suspended because Curtis was unarmed and that the death was a "freak incident" in which Curtis struck Dr. McClain only once.

"The felony-murder rule is too harsh under these facts to support a life sentence," Mr. Stein said. He said the judge has agreed to suspend part of the sentence.

Curtis also pleaded guilty yesterday to robbery and conspiracy to commit robbery, but the plea agreement calls for concurrent sentences for the various counts, the lawyer said.

Curtis has convictions for theft, malicious destruction and unauthorized use of an automobile on his record, Mr. Schenker said. Describing the ill-fated robbery to police, Curtis said he had been drinking and "getting high" when he set out to rob someone to get money to buy more drugs.

Curtis told police he got $75 in the robbery. "Not enough for someone to lose a life over," he said.

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