`Cold-blooded' killer at 16

Hardened boy gets 60 years for '06 shootings

May 16, 2007|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,Sun reporter

As he pleaded guilty to killing two grown men in separate West Baltimore shootings last year, the 16-year-old offered no explanation for his crimes and no apology to his victims' families.

Zachary James, one of the city's youngest and most brazen murder suspects, had no words at all during yesterday's court hearing, a day before he was to stand trial.

He pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree murder and two counts of using a handgun in the commission of a crime. He was sentenced to 60 years in prison, the first 10 to be served without the possibility of parole.

At 15, James was accused of killing two men in less than two months and just a few blocks apart from each other.

Richard Smith, a 34-year-old father of eight and valedictorian of the DeVry Institute of Technology in Columbus, Ohio, was gunned down July 16 in the 3600 block of Cottage Ave. A witness identified James as the killer, the prosecutor said yesterday.

Michael Freeman, a 32-year-old father of two who traveled the country doing restoration work in old buildings, including the Hippodrome Theatre, was shot to death Sept. 4 on his front porch in the 3400 block of Park Heights Ave. James had robbed Freeman about two months earlier, and a witness to both crimes identified him as the killer, according statements in court.

The witness saw James standing over Freeman "with literally a smoking gun in his hand," said Assistant State's Attorney Paul O'Connor.

When James, a skinny boy with a ninth-grade education, was arrested in September, police officials said they were taken aback by his street and system savvy.

"It was like looking at a kid and hearing an adult," said Lt. Terry McLarney, a supervisor in the Baltimore homicide unit. "The words he chose, and his knowledge of the system ... some of what he said, if you closed your eyes, you would think there was a 24-year-old career criminal sitting there."

The victims' mothers met each other just yesterday. They had come to court to talk about their sons' successes and how much James had taken from them.

Margaret Smith wore a shirt bearing Richard Smith's image and name. On the back it read: "Ma-Ma loves you."

Smith was a good father who coached Little League football and basketball, she said.

"He was trying to help kids stay out of problems like this," she said.

Her son's work on the Y2K problem when he was at Capgemini technology company in Baltimore was recognized by the Smithsonian Institution, Margaret Smith said.

She said she was in the shower

July 16 when she heard gunshots and then heard the screams of another of her sons. She pulled on a bathrobe and slippers and ran down the street to find Richard Smith bleeding under a red Ford Contour sedan.

Since that day, Margaret Smith said, "my eyes haven't been the same. My smile hasn't been the same."

Freeman was "conceived in love and raised in a loving, nurturing home," his mother, Theresa Waddell, told the court. Her son's death, she said, has left her heartbroken. "I feel like my legs have been cut off," she said.

Waddell, a Baltimore public schools teacher, said her son once asked her whether she was disappointed that he hadn't attended college. "I'm just a carpenter," he said.

"Jesus was a carpenter," she said she replied. She said her son's restoration of ornate woodwork at Buckingham Palace had even drawn praise from royalty.

After court, the mothers embraced and exchanged phone numbers. Both said they could not have withstood trials and were glad for the guilty plea.

James' attorney, Cassandra Costley, said the guilty plea showed that her client has matured since his crimes. He is remorseful, she said.

"Although he is for purposes of the law an adult, he is very much in fact a child," Costley said. She asked the judge to recognize that "a person of those tender years" has trouble with impulse control.

James declined to address the court. But his father, who identified himself as Minister Jeffrey Albert James, said he had been praying for the victims' families.

Many of Smith's and Freeman's relatives left the courtroom as the elder James spoke.

He said he had come from the same streets that had hardened his son, his only child. He said he, too, had served prison time and had been addicted to drugs. But he said he had reformed his life and now has a mentoring program.

"It hurts me in my heart that I could help other young men in this world, but I couldn't help save my own son," he said.

Both Jeffrey James and Costley asked the judge to sentence Zachary James to 50 years in prison instead of 60, perhaps giving him a shot "at some type of life," the father said.

Circuit Judge John M. Glynn declined to do that. He sentenced James to the maximum allowed under the plea agreement for what he said were "cold-blooded, senseless murders."


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