Two West Baltimore men were acquitted yesterday of charges that they robbed a Korean grocery store owner last year and then fatally shot him in front of his wife.
Friends and family members of Tavon Walker, 20, and Juwarren Bowers, 16, smiled and hugged in the courtroom after the verdict was read yesterday afternoon in Baltimore Circuit Court. Two rows ahead of them, the wife and daughter of the victim broke into sobs.
Walker and Bowers were charged with first-degree murder and armed robbery in the 1997 slaying of Chi Sup Kim, 44, who ran a neighborhood grocery store in West Baltimore.
It was one of several crimes against Korean merchants that prompted widespread fear in the Korean community and calls for increased police protection. Kim's slaying was particularly troubling to community leaders because Kim was shot after he gave the masked robbers about $400.
About six other cases involving murders of Korean grocers have gone to trial and all of the defendants have been convicted, said Assistant State's Attorney Cassandra Costley. Defendants in one case are awaiting trial.
In yesterday's verdict, jurors appeared to agree with defense attorneys that the evidence was not enough to convict Walker and Bowers, who, if convicted, could have faced life in prison. Attorneys questioned the identification of the defendants by two sisters -- ages 10 and 12 -- outside the now-closed grocery store on West Caton Avenue who said they saw the pair leaving immediately after the shooting.
In court, one of the girls could not identify either of the defendants. Her older sister -- who picked the defendants out of a photo array two months after the killing -- identified both. At an earlier hearing, however, she could not identify them, the defense said.
No physical evidence linked the defendants to the crime scene such as fingerprints or a murder weapon, the lawyers said.
"I feel terrible for the family. Who wouldn't? These kids didn't do it," said Bowers' attorney Murray Blum.
For Kim's family members, the verdict was like another fatal shot.
"That's unbelievable. I just don't want to believe it," said Harry Kim, 42, the victim's younger brother.
Kim said his brother never wanted to run the grocery store. He LTC was afraid of the city and preferred his job at a factory in the suburbs where he had worked for 18 years. But Kim said he pleaded with his brother to take over the store that he had run for several years. Harry Kim wanted to open an electrical repair shop and could not handle both duties.
Three years later, a robber was pointing a gun at Chi Sup Kim as he stuffed a brown paper bag full of money from the cash register of the store. His terrified wife -- Sung Ok Kim -- stood next to him. After he handed the robbers the money, authorities said, they shot him three times, one of the bullets severing his spine.
His wife covered her eyes with her hands and then tried to crawl away, but one of the robbers blocked her. After the shooting, she called 911, but the operator hung up on her because Mrs. Kim, who was emotional and spoke limited English, was so difficult to understand, Costley said.
After yesterday's verdict was read, Mrs. Kim, her daughter and other family members wept. They had sat through the four-day trial and curled up in the courtroom pews to sleep while awaiting the jury verdict.
Tina Kim, 17, said the killinghas been very difficult for her mother. She has nightmares, headaches and difficulty eating. "If he would have died naturally of a heart attack it would have been a lot easier," Tina Kim said.
Harry Kim said he still feels guilty for asking his brother to take over the store.
"He really didn't want to open up the shop," he said. "He's my brother. He looked out for me."
Pub Date: 9/12/98