Teen is guilty in mall killing

His plea in shooting of St. Paul's School educator averts possible execution

December 14, 2005|By JENNIFER MCMENAMIN | JENNIFER MCMENAMIN,SUN REPORTER

As his lawyers offered new details of the events that led to the fatal shooting of a private-school educator this year in a parking garage at Towson Town Center, the teenage gunman pleaded guilty to murder yesterday and avoided a possible death sentence.

John Edward Kennedy Jr., 19, of Essex entered a guilty plea to one count of first-degree felony murder in the killing of William A. Bassett, a longtime science teacher and faculty dean at St. Paul's School, and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Kennedy admitted shooting Bassett with a Winchester model 20-gauge shotgun during a botched armed robbery Feb. 18 on the fifth floor of the mall parking garage.

The shooting occurred after Kennedy, who had no criminal record, and a group of friends decided to try their hand at robberies, in part to pay for car repairs, defense lawyers said in court.

"If I could offer an explanation that would satisfy anybody ... as to why John fired a gun that day, the best I have been able to do is that John was not an experienced criminal," public defender F. Spencer Gordon told Circuit Judge Dana M. Levitz. "He was not somebody who was a professional at doing this kind of thing. He was in over his head."

Offered a chance to address the judge in court, Kennedy said in a soft voice: "I just want to apologize for taking Mr. Bassett from his family. I apologize to my family for taking myself from them."

The plea agreement brings to an end the second of two cases stemming from a crime that left Bassett's family and the St. Paul's students and staff in mourning, renewed concerns about security at the mall and prompted the Baltimore County Council to pass legislation requiring security cameras at large retail centers.

Levitz speculated that there wasn't a Baltimore County resident who felt the same way about pulling into a mall parking garage after hearing about the shooting.

"They were made to be apprehensive, fearful to some degree," the judge said, "because of what everyone agrees was just a ridiculous act. It affected the entire community."

Relatives, teachers and guidance counselors described Kennedy, who had a job at a Popeye's restaurant, as gentle, passive and likable, Gordon told the judge. But a distinct change occurred a month and a half before the mall shooting, the defense attorney said, when Kennedy resumed friendships with three young men he had grown up with. Influenced by rap music, MTV and portrayals of the gangster life, Gordon said, the young men decided to purchase a shotgun and "try to do robberies."

Kennedy and two friends allegedly were driving around the evening of Feb. 17 with a shotgun when they saw a man walking on Belair Road in the Overlea area, court records show. Kennedy and one of the friends allegedly robbed the man at gunpoint, the records said.

The next night, on Feb. 18, Javon Clark, another friend of Kennedy, picked up Clark's car from a repair shop. Uncertain how Clark would afford the repair bill he was expected to pay in three days, "that's where the decision was made to do yet another robbery," Gordon told the judge.

The two teenagers eventually headed to Towson Town Center. There, they saw Bassett, 58, walking alone from his car toward the stairwell.

Clark, 19, was convicted of attempted armed robbery but was acquitted of a murder charge. He was sentenced in October to 20 years in prison.

Susan Bassett, the victim's wife, said of yesterday's plea agreement, "This resolution of this case is in the best interest of my family."

Prosecutors said they agreed to the plea because it punished Kennedy while sparing Bassett's family the potentially lengthy and painful appeals process that accompanies a death sentence.

"The death penalty statute and the way it is administered in the state is not without ... many, many obstacles," Stephen Bailey, Baltimore County's deputy state's attorney, told the judge. "It does not work overnight. It is not expeditious. It's a much different situation when a defendant is willing to enter a guilty plea to life without parole."

jennifer.mcmenamin @baltsun.com

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