A Baltimore man was found guilty yesterday of kidnapping and killing his girlfriend's 8-year-old daughter, paving the way for prosecutors to pursue the death penalty at a sentencing hearing this fall.
Jamaal K. Abeokuto stood motionless and with no expression as a Baltimore County judge rendered the verdict. Earlier yesterday, the victim's mother fled from the courtroom in tears after hearing a lawyer describe her daughter's lethal wounds.
Marciana Ringo's throat had been slashed. The Northwood Elementary School pupil's body was found in a wooded area of Harford County.
"There's only one appropriate response to something that is so horrible," Harford County State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly said outside the Baltimore County courthouse after the verdict.
Abeokuto, 24, had waived his right to a jury trial, instead leaving Judge Thomas J. Bollinger Sr. to decide the case. The trial was moved from Harford to Baltimore County after Abeokuto requested a change in venue.
Testimony from the trial showed that Abeokuto, who lived with the girl and her family, became a suspect almost immediately after she disappeared Dec. 3, 2002. He was questioned for hours that day by Baltimore police, but was released because of a lack of evidence at the time.
Nine days later, Marciana's body was found near Joppatowne.
According to testimony presented during the trial, Abeokuto fled to Birmingham, Ala., where he used a disguise and a fake name. Federal investigators arrested him on Christmas Eve 2002, after an hours-long standoff at a motel.
This spring, Abeokuto's lawyers filed a motion questioning his ability to understand what was happening in court. Bollinger ruled Aug. 16 that Abeokuto was competent to stand trial.
During the weeklong trial, prosecutors presented scientific evidence, such as blue jeans with Marciana's blood on them, linking Abeokuto to the crime. Prosecutors said that DNA and a fingerprint linked Abeokuto to a ransom note to the girl's family, demanding $5,000.
Yesterday, prosecutors rested their case after calling an FBI agent who described Abeokuto's arrest in Alabama. The defense did not present any witnesses.
During closing arguments the prosecution reviewed the details of the girl's death: that a serrated knife apparently was used to slit her throat so deeply that she was nearly decapitated, and that some of her wounds indicated that the 4-foot-10-inch, 94-pound girl had put up a fight.
Her mother, Milagro White, jumped up, shouted a profanity at Abeokuto and fled the courtroom in tears. She could be heard in the hallway outside, sobbing and repeating, "Oh, my God." Relatives said it was the first time she'd listened to her daughter's death described in such detail.
Defense attorney Warren A. Brown acknowledged "the horror of the crime" during his closing argument and said later that his strategy had been to focus not on the first-degree murder charge, but on the kidnapping allegations. Maryland law requires an "aggravating circumstance," such as child abduction, in a murder before a death sentence can be imposed.
However, Bollinger rejected Brown's argument that Abeokuto had not kidnapped the girl because she appears to have gotten into his car willingly. Brown also had argued that Abeokuto, who had dated Marciana's mother for two years, was like a father to the girl.
Bollinger convicted Abeokuto on six charges, including first-degree murder and child kidnapping. Several of his family members sat stone-faced behind him. Many of Marciana's relatives, who filled one half of the courtroom benches, wept and nodded their heads. Her father sat in the back row, squeezing his eyes shut and bouncing his knee.
Marciana's grandfather, Gerald White, said after the verdict was announced that Brown's statement was "ridiculous."
"How can he talk about being like a parent?" he asked. "A real parent would never hurt a child like that."
Another family member, Roberto Vaddy, said: "Seeing my great-granddaughter - the way she was killed - it broke my heart."
Abeokuto's lawyer said he now will turn his attention to saving his client's life, a task he called "a mountain we're going to climb." Abeokuto again asked that Bollinger, not a jury, sentence him after a three-day hearing that is set to begin Nov. 15.
Brown said he felt a judge would be better able to "sequester emotions" and view the case dispassionately.
Prosecutors offered no motive for the killing.
"Even if I had a reason," Cassilly said outside the courthouse, "there's just no good reason for killing an 8-year-old girl."
Sun staff writer Jennifer McMenamin contributed to this article.