ROCKVILLE - Prosecutors said yesterday that a Calvert County man accused of leading police on a high-speed chase through six Maryland jurisdictions starting in Baltimore knew full well two children were in the Mercedes SUV he allegedly carjacked, but didn't care, continuing to elude police and dart through highway traffic at speeds topping 100 mph.
"This case is not about a car. It is about a mother and her children," Montgomery County Assistant State's Attorney Rakesh Patel told jurors in impassioned closing arguments in the trial of Carl E. Jones Jr. If convicted of all four counts, Jones faces the possibility of a century in prison.
But lawyers for Jones, while all but admitting to the carjacking and assault charges, asked jurors to find him not guilty of kidnapping.
"This case is not about kidnapping. It is about a car," defense attorney Rene Sandler argued.
She contended that Jones had no clue that the SUV held two children, that he did not see the youngsters in car seats in the back, and that he did not hear pleas from the victim not to take her children - all of which prosecutors argued was nonsense.
The difference could be significant for the 32-year-old Chesapeake Beach resident. Each child kidnapping charge carries a maximum prison term of 30 years.
The other two charges, carjacking and assault, carry a combined maximum sentence of 40 years.
Jones is accused of carjacking Marna Plaia on a Potomac road July 15 as she was returning to her Great Falls, Va., home from a visit with her parents.
Earlier in the week, the defense was barred from telling jurors they believe Jones was high on drugs at the time of the chase.
Jurors deliberated about three hours yesterday. When they resume deliberations this morning, Montgomery County Circuit Judge Louise G. Scrivener will give them an answer to their question that goes to a key issue on the kidnapping charges.
Jurors asked if kidnapping could occur any time during the flight from police, 90 minutes of which was in Plaia's car with her young children in it.
The chase started about 8 p.m. when Baltimore police began tracking a stolen Infiniti in West Baltimore. A city police helicopter followed the Infiniti as it zoomed along area highways and evaded roadblocks.
With the Infiniti running out of gas on Interstate 495, the Capital Beltway, the driver took the exit onto River Road in Potomac, an upscale section of Montgomery County, prosecutors contend.
There, about 8:30 p.m., as Baltimore police Officer Bill Shifflett watched from a police helicopter overhead, the man flagged down Plaia, yanked her out her SUV, and took off in it.
Prosecutors said Plaia told the man, "No, no, my kids," and even opened a rear door to try to rescue her son. But she was able only to unbuckle him before she had to close the door as the man began driving away, fearing that she had seen her children for the last time, prosecutors alleged.
As Plaia told a 911 dispatcher that her carjacked vehicle held her young son and daughter, the man led police back onto the Capital Beltway and to northbound Interstate 95, then onto the Baltimore Beltway, south on Interstate 95 and eventually onto U.S. 50, evading roadblock after roadblock.
The man turned the SUV around when he saw the Bay Bridge was blocked off. Police captured Jones on U.S. 50 in Anne Arundel County after he rammed a police cruiser, according to authorities.
As for Plaia's children, Paul, 3, was bounced around and suffered a bruised cheek, and Edie, 18 months, was not harmed, though prosecutors said both were terrified.
Jurors began hearing testimony Tuesday and started deliberating yesterday afternoon. Jones did not testify, leaving only one witness for the defense.
Yesterday, Mildred Berry of Calvert County, who described herself as the grandmother of the suspect's daughter, testified that the child and the child's mother were in a car crash one day earlier and were taken by helicopter to Washington hospitals.
Sandler contended that this supported Jones' contention that he was stopping Plaia to request help; Plaia had testified Jones told her he needed help for his daughter.
"My daughter needed help? Give me a break," Assistant State's Attorney Deborah Armstrong told jurors. "To argue that somehow he was trying to get help for his daughter from Ms. Plaia is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard."
She said Jones, his hands on the front of the SUV, looked straight into the vehicle, sizing up the woman behind the wheel, and would have had seen Edie in the center of the seat behind her mother, buckled into a tiger-striped car seat.
Prosecutors and defense lawyers agreed that Jones' motive was to elude police. But prosecutors say as long as he knew he was taking a vehicle with children and knew they were inside, he is guilty of kidnapping children.
Sandler countered that Jones wanted the vehicle and it "incidentally and accidentally had two children in it," which he did not know.
"The motive was running from the police, not taking the children," she said.
"What on earth is this man's motive to take her children? The absence of motive may suggest innocence," Sandler told jurors.
Jones, who has a lengthy criminal history, was on probation from stealing a car at the time of this incident.