James Edward "Lil' J" Smoot was 14 years old when his fellow Bloods gang members pressed a loaded 9 mm gun into his hand and directed him to knock on the door of an Essex man who failed to pay a weekly $250 "protection fee" to sell marijuana on the gang's turf.
When the man, Marquel "Marty" Smith, opened his door, Smoot pulled the trigger, shooting the man in the head and chest.
"He killed him because somebody told him to," prosecutor J.R. Francomano told a judge yesterday at the young gunman's sentencing hearing. "This was nothing less than a gang hit."
Saying he was disturbed by gangs' ability to "suck in young men like this" to commit the worst of their crimes, Baltimore County Circuit Judge Timothy J. Martin sentenced Smoot to 20 years in prison.
The case - which includes two defendants who were named in this week's federal indictment of 28 alleged gang members charged with murders, shootings, robberies, drug trafficking and witness intimidation - highlights gang leaders' increasingly frequent practice of recruiting younger and younger members to commit the crimes that draw long prison sentences.
"Far too often, young kids like James Smoot are sold a bill of goods" by the gang leaders who recruit them, defense attorney Warren A. Brown said of his client yesterday in court. "They're given the most deadly and dastardly of deeds that are referred to in the parlance of these groups as `a mission.' You perform missions and move up the organization."
He said such cases represent a real balancing test.
"The judge is in a tough situation out here. You want to be able to take into consideration that he was a baby down there," Brown said of Smoot in an interview after the hearing. "But you don't want these groups to believe that they can send these 14-year-olds out to commit murder and all they're going to get is a slap on the wrist. You don't want to send that message to their peers - and, more importantly, to their superiors."
Smoot was one of four Bloods gang members prosecuted in the fatal shooting of Smith on Dec. 17, 2006 in Essex.
Smoot, now 15, pleaded guilty in November to second-degree murder and a handgun charge. He was prosecuted in adult court.
A day later, Troy W. "Tru" Smith, 25, the highest-ranking of the Bloods members charged in the killing and the man police say gave the orders in Marquel Smith's death, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit armed robbery. He faces a sentence of 20 years in prison, with all but 10 years suspended, a prosecutor said.
Two others - Tavon M. "Batman" Mouzone, 22, and Michael A. Banks, 20 - were convicted by a Baltimore County jury of first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder, a handgun offense and aiding and abetting second-degree murder.
All three are scheduled to be sentenced next month.
Troy Smith and Mouzone were also charged this week with conspiracy to participate in racketeering activities in the federal indictment of nearly 30 people accused of participating in Baltimore-based gangs responsible for selling drugs, beating up rivals, intimidating witnesses and killing five people. In addition to the death of Marquel Smith, Mouzone was linked in the indictment to another homicide.
Witness testimony at the November trial of Mouzone and Banks in state court in Baltimore County revealed that they were members of the Tree Top Piru set, or TTP, of the Bloods in Essex.
A gang member who served as a lookout on the day that Marquel Smith was shot testified that the killing stemmed from a disagreement over the victim's refusal to "kick out" $250 a week to the TTP to sell marijuana in the gang's neighborhood.
"The order was to go over there, rob him, cut one of his ears off or his finger and give him a buck-50 across his face," the witness testified of Troy Smith's retribution against Marquel Smith. "If he had a gun, the order was to kill him if he had a gun."
The witness explained that a "buck-50" is a cut from ear to ear. Police say the nickname also stems from the belief that such an injury should require 150 stitches.
The next day, on Dec. 17, 2006, Smoot knocked on Marquel Smith's door and asked if he could buy some marijuana.
When Marquel Smith, 32, opened the door, Smoot began firing at his upper body. The gunman called out "Sue Wu" - a Bloods code that amounts to "calling the other homies to go ahead and finish the job real quick," the witness said at trial. Then, the rest of the group ran up to the front door and Banks began shooting at the victim's legs.
"He said, `I'm going to show you how it get done,'" the witness testified. "Basically, he wanted to finish the job. [Smoot] wasn't doing it right."
At yesterday's hearing, the prosecutor asked the judge to go beyond state sentencing guidelines that recommended a prison term of 15 to 20 years for Smoot.
"Marty Smith was a good person. ... He didn't bother anybody," Francomano said.
Marcia Gethers, the victim's mother, described him as a doting father to his 5-year-old boy and an attentive son who often hid gifts in her house for her birthday or Mother's Day.
Brown, the defense attorney, pointed out that Smoot did not experience the childhood that the victim apparently did. Born when his father was in prison, Smoot was soon abandoned by his mother and raised by other relatives, Brown told the judge.
"That's when you have entities like the Bloods who step in and form a kind of family," he said. "They're a predatory group of people."
Martin, the judge, said he struggled to find words worthy of describing such a crime. Listing tragic, horrible, senseless and disturbing, he said, "All of those things come to mind. But they don't do it. ... The English language is incapable of getting around something as senseless as this."