A Baltimore County jury yesterday found the teenage getaway driver in a fatal shooting at Towson Town Center guilty of attempted armed robbery, but acquitted him of a first-degree murder charge -- a verdict that appeared to skirt the judge's instructions and spared the man a potential life sentence.
The decision to acquit Javon Clark of the more serious charge came despite Judge Dana M. Levitz's instruction that to convict the 18-year-old of murder, jurors only needed to find that he had been a willing participant in the botched robbery attempt that led to the shotgun killing of educator William A. Bassett in a mall garage.
Prosecutors conceded that Clark, of Middle River, did not fire the fatal shot.
"Clearly, they found that he participated and [they] chose not to follow the law," said Deputy State's Attorney Stephen Bailey. "That's what's so frustrating. That's the purpose of the felony murder law. The purpose is to discourage people from going out and committing shotgun robberies."
But Clark's defense attorney, Lawrence B. Rosenberg, and a legal expert said yesterday that the jury likely factored their own beliefs about fairness into their decision-making, choosing to follow their collective conscience instead of the strictures of the law.
"Ultimately, jurors want to do the right thing. Ultimately, jurors want to return a verdict that is consistent with their sense of justice," said University of Maryland law professor Douglas Colbert.
"It's very possible that jurors had some lingering doubts about the extent of Mr. Clark's participation in the killing," he added. "And even though technically it met the elements of the crime, they were more satisfied with returning a guilty verdict for the crime they were certain he participated in."
One juror, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said yesterday that, at least for her, those considerations were very much at the forefront of her thoughts.
The juror said she did not believe Clark's testimony from the witness stand -- that the alleged gunman, John E. Kennedy Jr., essentially held him hostage, forcing him to drive at the point of a shotgun in search of a robbery victim. He did not give those details to police when interviewed after his arrest, she pointed out.
At the same time, the juror said she did not think that Clark believed a robbery attempt would end in death.
"In my mind, he never, ever in his wildest dreams would have expected that," she said.
The jurors all "knew what the law said, that if you participate in a crime and someone dies, you're guilty," she said, adding that "I just couldn't in good conscience put someone away for life for that."
Clark, who would have been exposed to a maximum penalty of life without the possibility of parole if convicted of murder, will face up to 20 years in prison for the attempted armed robbery conviction at his Oct. 17 sentencing before Levitz.
Kennedy, who is also charged with first-degree murder, is scheduled for trial in December. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against the 18-year-old Essex man.
The Feb. 18 death of Bassett, a 58-year-old St. Paul's School educator, raised concerns about mall safety and led the Baltimore County Council to pass legislation requiring that surveillance cameras be installed at the county's larger shopping centers.
Towson Town Center had no such surveillance in its parking areas at the time. Authorities have credited the arrests of Kennedy and Clark to an observant witness who heard a loud bang coming from the mall garage and jotted down the license tag of a 1987 Mercury Cougar he had seen in the area.
The car was registered to Clark, and both Clark and Kennedy later gave statements to police about their involvement in Bassett's death, according to testimony and court documents.
During the trial, prosecutors portrayed Clark as a willing "wheel man" who drove a buddy around in search of a robbery victim, while Rosenberg tried to paint a picture of his client as a victim of his gun-toting friend.
While jurors apparently did not believe the version of events presented by the defense, Rosenberg said he was heartened that "fairness, reason and justice triumphed over the letter of the law" in the jury's decision to acquit Clark on the murder charge.
Clark, who brought a paperback Bible into court with him every day, is a "great kid" who has never been in trouble with the law before, Rosenberg said.
The attorney presented testimony from Clark's teachers at Overlea High School and other county educators who said the teen, who graduated from the school last year, was known as a peacemaker and was often trusted to watch over fellow students on overnight trips taken by clubs.
"He's such a wonderful kid and such a wonderful person, and he did so little in the crime," Rosenberg said after the verdict. "I think [jurors] just didn't want to convict him of murder."
Outside the courthouse, Bassett's widow, Susan, said she appreciated the efforts of the state's attorney's office and police and that the jury's decision was a demonstration of "our democratic system" at work.
Thomas J. Reid, the headmaster of St. Paul's School, said he was surprised by the verdict, which he passed along to his staff via e-mail. "Ultimately, it doesn't change anything because we lost a great man when Bill died last winter," he said.
Sun staff writer Laura Barnhardt contributed to this article.