Ex-trooper is convicted of murder He shot stepson in March, could get 30-year sentence

No premeditation found

Jury had to decide whether Harding acted in self-defense

December 18, 1997|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Former Maryland state Trooper James M. Harding Jr. was convicted last night in Howard Circuit Court of murdering his stepson, whom he had raised from the age of 6.

Harding, 40, was cleared of first-degree murder, but the jury found him guilty of second-degree murder after deliberating about six hours.

The difference between the charges means that jurors decided Harding intended to kill 23-year-old Marine Cpl. Andre Boone March 21 but that the shooting was not premeditated. The second-degree murder charge carries a maximum 30-year sentence.

Harding is to be sentenced Feb. 19.

After the verdict was announced about 9: 45 last night, relatives and friends of L'Net Harding, the defendant's estranged wife and mother of the victim, hugged each other and embraced the prosecutors.

"Guess who won't be coming home for Christmas," shouted one of the women gathered around Mrs. Harding. "You got him, girl."

On the other side of the courtroom, Harding's supporters sat quietly as a man whose lifelong dream was to send criminals to prison was taken from the courtroom by sheriff's deputies.

"I love you," he mouthed to them as he was led away.

Anthony Covington, Harding's attorney, said he plans to appeal.

"Justice was not done," Covington said. "There was no way there was intent to kill on his part. At the very most it was manslaughter."

The trial brought to a close, for now at least, Harding's fall from one side of the law to the other after losing his dream job as a state trooper, in part because of permanent brain damage he suffered in an on-the-job accident.

Boone's early death meant he never got his dream job in the White House.

The only homicide case in Howard County this year, Harding's trial involved a tangled emotional conflict that pitted family members against each other.

Yesterday in court, emotions ran high. Twice, Harding's 14-year-old daughter, Boone's half-sister, left the courtroom sobbing when pictures of Boone were shown during closing arguments.

When prosecutors showed the jury the autopsy photograph of Boone with shotgun pellet wounds to the face and neck, L'Net Harding shook violently in her seat.

Boone's half-sister stood up and screamed at her father, "You bastard!" before she was led out of the courtroom.

Jurors had to decide whether what happened that day inside the Goodin Circle home was murder or self-defense.

Police charged Harding with murdering his stepson after an apparent fight.

The jury's verdict seemed to reject parts of the prosecution and defense arguments. The defense maintained that Harding felt his life was in danger and that he shot Boone to protect himself, which would be self-defense. Prosecutors alleged that Harding's action was premeditated, which would be first-degree murder.

After eight days of testimony, prosecutors introduced a new theory yesterday. They alleged that Harding, to support his self-defense case, had staged the crime scene to make it seem as if Boone and he had struggled. A Howard County police detective testified that he thought a fight had taken place.

"After that shot, there was only one person capable of moving around, and that was James Harding," Assistant State's Attorney Eileen McInerney said.

Prosecutors focused much of their case on what they called inconsistent accounts Harding gave of the shooting.

First, Harding told police that he and Boone had struggled over Harding's shotgun and that the gun had gone off in the midst of the fight. Prosecutors presented evidence that Boone was shot from at least 10 feet away.

On Tuesday, Harding testified that Boone and he struggled and that Boone then threatened to burn down the house. Harding said he shot Boone as his stepson held a red gasoline can but didn't mean to kill him. He said he only wanted to scare Boone.

Harding's attorney strongly disputed the state's allegation that Harding staged the crime scene, saying he could have done a much better job.

"If somebody is going to the great lengths the state says he did to absolve himself don't you think he would have gotten the physical evidence right?" Covington asked.

Harding maintained that Boone came to his house March 21 looking for trouble. The defense presented statements from two of Boone's friends who said he had told them he was going to his stepfather's house to beat him up.

Yesterday, Covington replayed a 911 tape on which Harding is heard pleading for an ambulance to come after he shot Boone.

"Ask yourself if you hear the monster the state is trying to create," Covington said. "You tell me if you hear a man who is trying to help his son."

Pub Date: 12/18/97

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