A Baltimore man suspected of driving the getaway car for a botched robbery that turned into a murder pleaded guilty yesterday to less serious charges midway through jury selection, after deciding not to risk a murder conviction and life in prison.
Christopher Rian Nelson, 19, of the 3000 block of Ascension St. agreed to plead guilty in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court to conspiracy to commit armed robbery and to illegal use of a handgun in exchange for a 16-year prison term. He entered an Alford plea, in which he did not admit committing the crime but conceded the evidence against him was compelling.
"He agreed to plead guilty because, quite frankly, he was afraid he would potentially get life without parole," said A. Jai Bonner, his lawyer. "There were just too many variables here that he wasn't going to let play out."
While Judge Robert H. Heller Jr. questioned Nelson, about 50 potential jurors waited in the corridor outside the courtroom.
Nelson was one of three Baltimore friends accused in the shooting death of Betty Lou Johnson, 48, of the 7900 block of Telegraph Road in Severn on Sept. 15, 1996. She died on the kitchen floor of the Old Country Buffet, in the 6600 block of Ritchie Highway, where she worked, after startling an armed robber after closing.
Nelson apologized for hurting the Johnson family and his own.
Heller told him that although his relatives could visit him in prison and anticipate his eventual release, the Johnsons have only memories of a woman described as a wonderful mother, devoted wife and hard worker.
Crane said later that a trial for Nelson would have been the family's last chance for full justice. Family members had objected to a plea agreement calling for a 10-year sentence for Nelson.
Assistant State's Attorney Frederick Paone said the plea guaranteed "real jail time," although a few years less than he had negotiated for earlier.
Police and Paone have said that Nelson, Tia Monique Evans, 18, of the 3000 block of Southland Ave. and Shelton Lamont Wood, 23, of the 2400 block of E. Oliver St. planned an armed robbery at the restaurant where Evans worked. Evans let Wood in while Nelson waited outside. Johnson opened a closet where Wood was hiding, and he panicked and shot her. The three got no money.
Wood pleaded guilty to murder and is serving life plus 15 years. Evans pleaded guilty to attempted armed robbery in exchange for her testimony. She has not been sentenced.
Nelson is serving a two-year sentence for unauthorized use of a car in an unrelated case and is awaiting trial on similar charges in Howard County. When Baltimore police stopped him for erratic driving after the murder, they found it had been stolen from an Ellicott City dealership.
Pub Date: 1/28/98