New law sought in shootouts

March 08, 1995|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Sun Staff Writer

Maryland's attorney general urged the state's highest court yesterday to establish new law and provide prosecutors with more legal firepower in cases arising from urban shootouts that kill bystanders.

In a hearing before the Maryland Court of Appeals, J. Joseph Curran Jr. asked the court to uphold rulings that a willing participant in a gunbattle can be guilty of murdering a bystander even if the participant did not fire the fatal shot.

"The criminal justice system can, by affirming this, set a standard of culpability in these shootings," Mr. Curran said after the hearing in the case, which arose from the 1992 slaying of a 15-year-old West Baltimore girl. "Those who engage in shootouts under the scenario we have here are guilty of second-degree murder."

Arguing for the other side, assistant public defender Victoria S. Lansburgh said the court should reverse a West Baltimore man's 1993 conviction for second-degree murder. She said it established a dangerous precedent that someone could be convicted of a crime over which he had no control. Her client cannot be held responsible for another man's murderous act because the two were not legally "confederates" in any activity, she said.

Mr. Curran called the case one of "first impression," meaning the court would be establishing a precedent on an issue never before addressed.

Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said the case does not necessarily expand the law. But she said more people in such shootouts might be prosecuted for murder if the Court of Appeals approves the underlying legal theory.

The issues come before the state's high court in an appeal filed by David L. "Diesel" Alston, who was 18 when he was sentenced to 30 years in prison in 1993. He was convicted of second-degree murder in the girl's slaying even though the fatal shot was fired by a New York man -- known as "B.O." -- who has never been apprehended.

In that case, Baltimore prosecutor Rex S. Gordon successfully argued that Alston was guilty under the theory of the "depraved heart murder," which holds that someone who acts with wanton indifference to others' safety should be regarded as someone who intended to kill.

Baltimore Circuit Judge Roger W. Brown, who presided over the trial, recalled it as a "novel approach" that was supported, in part, by a 1906 North Carolina case involving a railroad station shootout in which a bystander was killed.

Trial testimony showed that Alston was among one of two groups trading shots near Presstman and Division streets on a warm summer evening in 1992. Fifteen-year-old Adrian Edmonds, who was sitting on nearby porch steps and holding her 15-month-old son, was shot and killed.

Four other men pleaded guilty to manslaughter and received sentences ranging from 10 months to 10 years.

In affirming Alston's conviction last year, the Court of Special Appeals described the gunmen as "a group of arrogant and swaggering young men, acting like a group of drunken cowboys."

The court said: "The 'bottom line' is that when a group, or two groups, of hoodlums deliberately engage in a gang-war style of shootout in a crowded urban area, they collectively trigger an escalating chain reaction creating a high risk to human life. . . . Which bullet came from which gun is inconsequential."

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