Described by the victim's family as a coldblooded murderer with "misspent intelligence," former Johns Hopkins University student Robert J. Harwood Jr. was sentenced to 35 years in prison yesterday for shooting his former friend outside a campus Republican club meeting.
Harwood, 23, would normally be eligible for parole in 17 1/2 years. But as part of a plea arrangement in Baltimore Circuit Court, a judge is recommending him for a prison psychiatric program at the Patuxent Institution that could grant him an earlier release.
The possibility of early parole drew somber words from the parents of Rex T. Chao, the student Harwood shot in the back of the head April 10, 1996. Witnesses saw Harwood kick Chao over as he lay dying on the ground and shoot him a second time.
"A stalker like Harwood should have been stopped before he killed. We hope and pray that the parole board will remember the heinous circumstances," Rosetta and Robert Chao said in a written statement.
"If his consummate ability to manipulate people with his misspent intelligence permits him to obtain early parole, there is no assurance he will not kill again. The parole laws should protect the victims, their families and society from violent offenders granted early parole," they wrote.
Harwood, an honors student in chemistry, appeared calm and smiled often at his attorneys yesterday as he entered a guilty plea to second-degree murder and a felony handgun violation before Judge John C. Themelis. As part of the plea, Harwood withdrew his claim that he was not criminally responsible for the crime.
Through his attorney, Harwood, wearing a button-down Oxford shirt, chino pants and brown loafers, told the judge that he wished he could trade places with the victim.
"He wishes that if only he could, he would trade places so that he would be gone and Rex could live," attorney Michael E. Kaminkow told the judge. "This really is a great human tragedy. Two young lives have been snuffed out. Not only Rex's, but Bob's. His life has been figuratively snuffed out. All his hopes and dreams evaporated on that night."
Kaminkow said during a hearing recess that Harwood has had nightmares about Rex coming back and talking to him.
Harwood and Chao, 19, had a close friendship at one time and were heavily involved in the College Republicans club on the Hopkins campus. But early last year, Chao rejected his former friend, causing Harwood to launch an obsessive campaign of phone calls, electronic mail and harassment, prosecutors said.
Chao, a gifted violinist who played in the Johns Hopkins Symphony Orchestra, complained to university officials about Harwood's behavior and told them about the .357 Magnum his former friend carried. Prosecutors said that was the gun used to shoot Chao after the College Republicans meeting, at which Harwood tried unsuccessfully to block Chao's election as chairman.
The Chao family said yesterday that although they considered the crime to be "coldblooded murder," they supported the plea agreement to the lesser charge of second-degree murder.
"A trial would be too painful and devastating to our entire family," the Chaos said in their statement. "We also know that no trial could bring our son back. We want Harwood to voluntarily admit his guilt and not hide behind other pretenses."
They added: "Until the stalking laws are toughened and enforced, any of us or our children can be the victim of an obsessed person like Harwood."
Harwood maintained that Chao had sexually assaulted him in the months before the slaying, although he had no proof and his electronic mail to Chao made no mention of such an incident. But his accusation would probably have surfaced at a trial.
Chao's parents "didn't want to see their son villainized" by sensational allegations, said Assistant State's Attorney Ahmet Hisim.
Harwood received 30 years -- the maximum sentence allowed -- for the second-degree murder conviction and five years without parole for the handgun charge. But the "no parole" provision of the handgun charge becomes moot when combined with the lengthier charge for murder, said Maryland Assistant Attorney General Richard Rosenblatt.
Typically, violent offenders in Maryland are eligible for parole after serving half their sentence, meaning Harwood could have his first parole hearing when he is 40. But special circumstances may apply if he is admitted into a psychiatric treatment program at the maximum-security Patuxent Institution.
Themelis complied with a plea recommendation by prosecution and defense lawyers to recommend Harwood to the program. If accepted -- and acceptance is usually very limited -- his sentence would fall under the auspice of the Patuxent Board of Review rather than the state Parole Commission, Rosenblatt said.