Trial in killing of educator at mall begins

Case will center on whether friend of alleged gunman was forced or willing accomplice

September 09, 2005|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

Prosecutors and a defense attorney agreed yesterday that Javon Clark drove the alleged gunman to a parking garage at Towson Town Center the night a St. Paul's School educator was fatally shot.

But as Clark's murder trial opened, the two sides presented dueling theories of what led the teen to the mall - pitting an image of a willing "wheel man" trolling for a robbery victim with a buddy against one of a young man fearful of his shotgun-toting friend.

"They weren't there to shop. They were there on a mission. They had a job to do," Baltimore County prosecutor Stephen Bailey told jurors during his opening statement. "They were there for the purpose of finding someone to rob."

But defense attorney Lawrence Rosenberg said his client only drove around "at shotgun point" in search of a victim because he felt threatened by John E. Kennedy Jr., the man authorities allege killed 58-year-old William A. Bassett during a botched robbery attempt.

"We will show you evidence that will prove to you that through fear and confusion and surprise, that's why Javon Clark ... was involved in that murder," Rosenberg said.

The statements, which were followed by a day of prosecution testimony in Baltimore County Circuit Court, highlighted what is expected to be the central issue for jurors in the case - whether Clark was a willing participant in a robbery attempt that turned deadly.

Yesterday, prosecutors presented the bulk of their case, including a videotaped statement Clark gave to investigators 2 1/2 days after the Feb. 18 shooting.

In that statement, which was played for jurors yesterday, the 18-year-old Middle River man admitted to driving Kennedy to the mall, dropping his friend off near Bassett, who was walking toward a stairwell, hearing a loud bang and then driving with Kennedy back to his house where the two watched the NBA rookie all-star game.

Clark said Kennedy later told him he killed Bassett because the educator "disrespected" him, according to the statement.

"He said, `I told the guy to go back to the car, and he just turned around and looked at me, and he disrespected me - and then, bang,'" Clark told investigators.

More to come

But Rosenberg hinted to jurors during opening statements yesterday that they would hear more from his client during the trial - a likely reference to plans to put Clark on the witness stand. Clark, he said, would tell them that he "stopped at least three other attempts at robbery that night because he made up excuses ... and finally, the excuses ran out."

The two men were arrested after a tip from a 19-year-old college student, Jonathan Schultz, who heard a loud noise coming from the garage while picking up his girlfriend at a nearby apartment complex and saw Clark's 1987 Mercury Cougar leaving the area of the sound, according to testimony. Schultz testified that he saw the Cougar on Joppa Road a few minutes later, jotted down the license tag and called police after learning of Bassett's death.

After the arrest, detectives found a shotgun and a box of slugs with one missing on Kennedy's bed in his Essex home, according to testimony.

Courtroom emotions

Yesterday's testimony drove Bassett's family, friends and co-workers to tears at points, particularly as witnesses described the condition of the educator's shattered face - and displayed photos of his body lying in a pool of blood near a stairwell in the garage. Bassett's widow, Susan, ran sobbing from the courtroom.

Both Clark and Kennedy, 18, are charged with first-degree murder in the case. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Kennedy and have filed a notice that they intend to seek a sentence of life without parole for Clark if he is convicted.

Kennedy has also been charged with robbing a man in Overlea the day before Bassett was killed. Clark is not charged in that case.

Testimony in Clark's murder trial is scheduled to resume this morning. The trial, in front of Baltimore County Circuit Judge Dana M. Levitz, is expected to end Monday. Kennedy is scheduled to go to trial in December.

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