Prosecutors began yesterday to lay out the web of scientific evidence that they say links 24-year-old Jamaal K. Abeokuto to the kidnapping and killing of his girlfriend's 8-year-old daughter in December 2002.
In his opening statement in the Baltimore man's trial, Harford County State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly said that blood believed to have come from young Marciana Ringo was found on jeans linked to Abeokuto. Authorities also found Abeokuto's fingerprint on a ransom letter mailed to the girl's mother and Abeokuto's DNA on the envelope flap that was licked to seal the note, which demanded $5,000 for the girl's return, Cassilly said.
The prosecutor characterized the crime as "premeditated, cold-blooded murder."
Defense attorney Warren A. Brown, in his opening statement and in his questioning of the witnesses who testified yesterday in Baltimore County Circuit Court, focused not on the first-degree murder charge or the details of the alleged killing but on the kidnapping charge that could leave his client open to facing the death penalty.
"If there was any movement of this girl," he told the judge, "it was completely incidental to the killing of this girl."
Brown also took issue in his opening statement with the extortion charge that stemmed from the ransom note. "It may have been sent with the intention of creating a different trail or diverting attention from him," he said, "but he didn't do it to get money because he knew there were no monies to be had."
Whether Abeokuto needed his girlfriend's permission to drive her daughter somewhere could be important if Baltimore County Circuit Judge Thomas J. Bollinger Sr. finds the defendant guilty of murder. Maryland law requires an "aggravating circumstance" - such as kidnapping or child abduction - in a murder before a death sentence can be imposed.
Lawyer Fred Warren Bennett, who is not involved in this case but who has done defense work in numerous death penalty cases, said that defense attorneys in capital cases might zero in on fighting those elements that determine whether a jury or judge can sentence a defendant to die.
"Many times in a death case where the proof of the actual homicide is strong, the attorney will concentrate on attacking aggravators," he said.
Abeokuto is accused of kidnapping Marciana on Dec. 3, 2002, slitting her throat and leaving her to die in a wooded area of Harford County, where her body was found nine days after the girl disappeared. Federal authorities arrested Abeokuto at an Alabama hotel on Christmas Eve, three weeks after Marciana, a Northwood Elementary School pupil, had gone missing.
The case was moved from Harford County to Baltimore County after Abeokuto requested a change of venue.
Scheduled to go to trial in April, the case was put on hold indefinitely when public defenders representing Abeokuto filed a motion questioning his ability to understand the court proceedings.
Bollinger, the judge, found Abeokuto competent to stand trial last week and, with Brown representing him, Abeokuto waived the right to a jury.
Yesterday, on the first day of what is expected to be at least a weeklong trial, the judge heard about the scientific evidence that prosecutors say proves Abeokuto killed the young girl, who loved school and bowling.
Cassilly said that DNA tests linked the girl to blood on gloves and on a pair of jeans in a blue plastic Wal-Mart bag found near the North Baltimore apartment complex where Abeokuto's girlfriend, Milagro White, lived with her daughter and son. In the bag, police also found the sales tags from a pair of Back Road Blues jeans, Cassilly said.
White, Marciana's mother, recognized the bloody jeans - by their brand name and the way the cuffs were folded - as pants she had bought for her boyfriend. In Abeokuto's car, police found a Wal-Mart receipt for a pair of Back Road Blues jeans purchased the same day that Marciana disappeared, the prosecutor told the judge.
The prosecutor said the evidence would not reveal a motive for the killing.
Brown portrayed his client as "a family man" who remained involved with White's children even when the couple broke up for a while and White dated other men.
White, who glared at Abeokuto through much of her testimony, acknowledged that her children referred to Abeokuto as "Daddymal," a nickname that blended his first name with a term of parental affection while still distinguishing him from the children's biological father.
Asked about Abeokuto's discovery of cell-phone records showing she had spoken with a former boyfriend after she and Abeokuto reunited, White said, "Of course, he was agitated, but he wasn't really riled, upset or angry."
White also spoke of her panic on returning home from Goucher College, where she works as a custodian, to find an answering machine message from her daughter's teacher, asking why Marciana had not come to school that day. She testified she had last seen her daughter that morning when she kissed Marciana good-bye before leaving for work.
Sun staff writer Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.