Men receive life sentences in killing of 5

Punishment includes 5 consecutive terms for '99 mass murder

`Local brush with evil'

Victims' families lash out at three who were convicted

September 25, 2001|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

Characterizing the crimes as evil, a circuit judge sentenced three men yesterday to life in prison without parole for the 1999 murders of five women in a Northeast Baltimore rowhouse, the city's worst mass killing in more than a decade.

Ismael Malik Wilson, 29, Travon McCoy, 23, and Robert Bryant, 24, appeared before Judge William Quarles separately, each receiving five consecutive life sentences without parole (one for each victim), another life sentence for conspiracy to commit murder and an additional 110 years for other crimes related to the murders.

Only McCoy spoke yesterday in court. "I'd like to send my regards to the family," he said -- a wish that was instantly rebuffed with a loud expletive from one of the roughly two dozen friends and relatives of the victims, who sat together on one side of the courtroom.

All three convicted men will appeal, their lawyers said.

The trial of Tariq A. Malik, 21, who also was charged with murdering the women, is scheduled for November.

In June, the men were convicted of forcing their way into the Elmley Avenue house of Mary McNeil Matthews, 39, in December 1999, and fatally shooting her, her mother, Mary Helen Collien, 56; Matthews' daughter, Makisha Jenkins, 18; and two family friends who were cousins by marriage, Levanna Spearman, 23, and Trennell Alston, 26.

During the trial, the state's key witness, Alvin Thomas, testified that the suspects had had drug dealings with Matthews and had come to her house to rob her. When they didn't get what they wanted, Thomas said, they herded the women into the basement and opened fire.

The crimes gained national attention and became emblematic of the deadly drug wars that have devastated many Baltimore neighborhoods. The slayings shocked the city, which hadn't dealt with murder on such a scale for years. In 1986, five people were killed in a Pimlico apartment, and in 1971, five were murdered when a man opened fire in a Southwest Baltimore paintbrush factory.

Yesterday, Wilson -- who guarded Thomas at gunpoint outside the rowhouse while the others did the killing, prosecutors said -- was sentenced first. He stood before the judge wearing a prison-issue orange jumpsuit, as Quarles addressed the courtroom:

"I thought for some time about appropriate words to say at this sentencing, and none came. I think that's because of the massive nature of the crimes here. And even with our newly coarsened sensibilities -- sensibilities coarsened by the massive loss of life in New York recently and in the Pentagon -- this local brush with evil that we've had is still affecting."

Quarles acknowledged he could offer no comfort. "I have no words to ease the sorrow of the victims or the victims' family members, and I have no ability to say anything rehabilitative to Mr. Wilson."

Some of the victims' relatives were visibly distraught. Choking back sobs, Tamika McNeil, Matthews' daughter, addressed McCoy in court before he was sentenced. In June, McNeil said yesterday, when the jury delivered its verdict, McCoy had looked at her in court and muttered crudely about having killed her mother.

"I have no mother, no grandmother, my sister is gone. ... I wish there was something more that could be done besides life in prison," she said, adding that the convicted men could still have contact with their families.

"I hate you. I want you to know that," she said. Before leaving the courtroom crying, McNeil said she had not wanted to raise her voice, "I'm a child of God," she said. "He may forgive you, he may not. ... I hope you burn in hell."

After she finished, McCoy replied, "I didn't kill nobody's mother."

Short of the death penalty, the sentences are among the harshest ever given in Baltimore, McCoy's attorney, William Purpura, said after court.

Before the trial, city prosecutors had offered all three men life sentences with all but 40 years suspended if they pleaded guilty to the murders. Contrary to their lawyers' advice, they refused, Purpura said.

The brutality of the murders was not lost on defense attorneys, all of whom offered sympathy to victims' relatives in court yesterday. Purpura noted that although the defense attorney's job is an unpopular one at times, he and his colleagues are vital to the judicial system. After the sentencing, Purpura was at a loss for what else to say. "There's really nothing to say on this one," he said.

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