Alleged Black Guerrilla Family gang members Kenneth Robbins and William Key used to call each other brothers - until Robbins, then 15, was arrested and told police that the friends had each fatally shot a 16-year-old in the face.
Fearing for Robbins' safety in Baltimore's violent "stop snitching" culture, prosecutor Theresa Shaffer ensured the teens were kept apart.
But in a city courtroom Tuesday, as attorneys negotiated a more lenient sentence for Robbins in exchange for testifying against Key, corrections officers put the feuding teens on the same bench long enough for Key to wriggle out of his handcuffs and pummel Robbins, according to witnesses and a video recording of the proceeding.
During two days of hearings, which concluded Wednesday, Baltimore Circuit Judge Martin P. Welch Sr. sentenced Key, 19, to six months in prison and his cousin, a 15-year-old girl who tried to intervene in the fight, to seven days in jail for contempt of court.
Also on Wednesday, appearing unfazed by the beating, Robbins, now 17, took the plea deal, admitting to firing the second shot into Deron Pope's head and agreeing to testify against his former best friend.
In exchange, he will either be sentenced as a juvenile - and spend about four years in a secure, out-of-state facility - or be sentenced as an adult to no more than 25 years in prison.
The case is the second within a month in which an alleged BGF gang member threatened a witness in a Baltimore courtroom.
"I told everybody to keep these two separate," Shaffer told Welch after the attack. "This is the same [gang] that just threatened a witness in my trial in another courtroom."
Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said that she has been "screaming and yelling" about witness intimidation for seven years, but until recently, "nobody took us seriously."
"We're trying to educate people," Jessamy said on Wednesday.
Before the assault, negotiations between Shaffer and the three attorneys representing Robbins stalled. When Shaffer said she wouldn't accept a plea for anything below 18 years in prison, one of Robbins' attorneys, John Markus, accused her of ignoring the fact that Robbins was "putting his life on the line" to convict a "man he used to call his brother."
Shaffer later replied: "He had a horrible, horrible upbringing, which turned him into a 15-year-old who will fire a gun in someone's face. He has confessed, this is true, but even in his confession ... he has denied the horror of what happened."
About 20 minutes later, the first punch landed squarely on Robbins' face as someone screamed in a crescendo, "Oh! Oh! Oh!" Welch ducked under the bench to push an emergency button as a sheriff's deputy bolted from her chair to intervene.
Meanwhile, Shaffer yelled at the clerk, "Call for backup. Call for backup. Jesus, call for backup." The sheriff began ordering spectators to step back and then drew her gun to fend off Key's, who had become combative.
Shaffer then began shouting at the sheriff, telling her not to let the cousin leave the courtroom. "Do not let her leave!" she repeated, as she stepped from the bench and waded into the gallery.
As spectators left the courtroom and tensions simmered, Shaffer, the sheriff and the judge began to discuss how Key slipped out of handcuffs - at which point Welch turned off the video recording. Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the state's corrections department, said late Wednesday that the agency is investigating and does not know yet whether the cuffs were on properly.