More than four years after a fistfight in the parking lot of Randallstown High School sparked gunfire that wounded four students, the man who provided the gun to the shooters looked at the most severely injured victim in a Baltimore County courtroom yesterday and said he was sorry.
"I want to apologize for your life, and how you have to live your life from now on," Antonio R. Jackson told William "Tippa" Thomas III, who was paralyzed from the waist down when bullets pierced his neck, back and lung four years ago. "I'm truly sorry. All of that stuff wasn't meant to happen."
Jackson, 25, of Owings Mills had pleaded guilty minutes before to one count of first-degree assault and one count of using a handgun in commission of a crime of violence. He was sentenced by Circuit Judge Patrick Cavanaugh to concurrent sentences of 10 years for the assault charge and five years for the handgun charge. The handgun charge comes without the possibility of parole.
The case against Jackson was delayed for several years after prosecutors dropped the charges against him because they could not find a key witness. When the witness was located last year, the charges were refiled.
Prosecutor Karen Pilarski said Jackson provided the gun to the two men convicted of shooting into the crowd of high school students May 7, 2004, and then drove one of the gunmen away.
Also shot were students Alexander Brown, Marcus McLain and Andre Mellerson. They were not in court yesterday.
Thomas, who sat in a wheelchair in the back of the courtroom, and his mother, Peggie Henderson, said Jackson's apology seemed heartfelt. It surprised them, they said, because the other defendants found guilty in the shootings hadn't apologized directly to Thomas. Tyrone Devon Brown was sentenced in 2004 to 50 years in prison for attempted second-degree murder and a handgun charge, and Matthew Timothy McCullough was sentenced in 2005 to 100 years in prison for four counts of first-degree assault.
"It was in good taste for him to apologize," Thomas said of Jackson. "Based on his apology, I really feel as though he didn't totally know what he was walking into. He had an idea, but he probably didn't know how it would escalate. He was the only one who looked me in the eye."
Jackson "showed more remorse than any of them," Henderson said.
When prosecutors first filed the charges against Jackson in 2004, their case hinged on the testimony of Ronald P. Johnson. But Johnson, who police suspected did not want to testify against his friends, disappeared shortly after being released when attempted-murder charges against him were dropped in June 2004 because of lack of evidence..
By January 2005, prosecutors still had not located Johnson, and dismissed the charges against Jackson with a promise to refile them if Johnson was found.
On Thanksgiving Day 2007, Johnson was arrested in Baltimore during a traffic stop. On Dec. 3, he was indicted on a charge of obstruction of justice, and prosecutors filed a petition charging him with criminal contempt of court for failing to testify when Jackson was initially scheduled for court.
With their key witness back in custody, prosecutors refiled 18 charges against Jackson on Dec. 14, and he was ordered held without bail. The time, Jackson has spent jailed since then, as well as the eight months he spent jailed in 2004 and 2005, will count as time served toward the concurrent sentences he received yesterday.
Thomas and his mother said they were happy with Jackson's sentences.
"I have full confidence in the state's attorney's decision on the plea. If they feel that's adequate, then I'm fine with that," said Thomas, who will start his senior year studying electrical engineering at Morgan State University in September. "I put this situation behind me a long time ago, but for my family's sake, this brings closure."
"I want to thank the community, all of the churches and the many, many prayers that went out in support of my son," Henderson said. "As you can see, when prayers go up, blessings come down."