With the trial date just a week away, Baltimore prosecutors and attorneys for murder suspect Robert J. Harwood Jr. have tentatively agreed on a guilty plea that would send the former Johns Hopkins University student to prison for as little as 17 1/2 years.
Under the terms of the agreement, which would have to be considered by a Baltimore Circuit Court judge on July 16, Harwood would plead guilty to second-degree murder and a handgun violation and receive 35 years, sources told The Sun. Violent offenders in Maryland typically are eligible for parole after half their sentences, meaning Harwood could be paroled when he's 40.
Harwood, 23, is accused of gunning down his former best friend Rex T. Chao on the Hopkins campus minutes after a College Republican Club meeting on the night of April 10, 1996. Witnesses said they saw Harwood shoot Chao in the back of the head with a .357-caliber Magnum, then fire another shot into his chest as he lay on the ground.
Although Chao's parents said they have no problems with the sentencing arrangement -- the plea was presented to them for their approval, legal and family sources said -- others close to the case were angry.
"It was cold-blooded murder and nothing less," said Linda Hubbard, the mother of a Johns Hopkins student, Suzanne Hubbard, who dated Chao and was standing next to him when he was shot. "It was a premeditated act. He harassed Rex and my daughter for months. It's hard for me to believe he did not know what he was doing. He came to Baltimore from Rhode Island [his home state] carrying a gun."
Harwood is charged with first-degree murder, which could carry up to a life sentence.
Part of the sensationalism around the case might have driven the Chao family to avoid a public trial. Harwood has claimed that he was in a tortured state of mind in the months preceding the murder, a result of an alleged sexual encounter he claimed to have had with Chao.
Those allegations are unproven and absent from any of the frequent electronic mail the two men wrote to each other. But they nevertheless could have figured prominently in court proceedings, which sources said would have added further grief on the Chaos.
Robert Y. Chao, father of the victim, would only say yesterday that prosecutors had spoken with him about the plea deal. But the Chao family attorney, Ty Cobb, said yesterday that the family is pleased with the arrangement.
"The family is very grateful for the level of interaction between the prosecutors and the family," Cobb said. "The prosecutors have been sensitive at every stage to the family's interest. And as those who well-knew their son can attest, this is a family where virtue rather than vengeance always was emphasized."
Some bitterness remains, however. Harwood indirectly sent some type of correspondence to the Chaos after the killing that apparently upset family members, although they wouldn't reveal what the message contained.
"Harwood's infliction of pain on the Chaos went well beyond the assassination of their son," said Cobb, refusing to comment further.
Harwood of Bradford, R.I., and Chao, 19, of Port Washington, N.Y., had an intense friendship at Hopkins that abruptly took a sinister turn. Just before Harwood finished his course work and left campus a semester early, Chao and Suzanne Hubbard complained that Harwood was obsessively calling and sending electronic mail.
The electronic mail shows that Harwood was desperately trying to keep his friendship with Chao alive, while Chao backed away and seemed fearful of the man he once emulated in the Republican Club.
Police allege that Harwood traveled by train from Rhode Island to Baltimore, carrying the .357 Magnum in a duffel bag. He then went to the Republican Club meeting where he denounced Chao shortly before the killing.
Harwood once wrote in his personal journal -- a document that became part of the public court file -- that Chao made a sexual advance and violated "me, my rights and my dignity." But he never brings up the allegation of sexual assault in any of their electronic messages, which seem instead to show Harwood as going through some type of obsession. At one point, he sent Chao a love poem via electronic mail.
In another communication, he wrote to Chao, "You have repeatedly told me how special I am to you and that you will always be there for me and I could call at any time. As you know, this time is a difficult one for me and I've cried out for your assistance, presence and help."
Sources said that as part of the plea arrangement -- which could still be modified up until the July 16 hearing -- Harwood would withdraw his previously entered plea of not criminally responsible. Typically such a plea makes possible an insanity defense.
He also would be allowed to serve his sentence at the Patuxent Institution, a maximum-security prison in Jessup where the emphasis is on treating prisoners' underlying mental problems.