Prosecutors cut deal with woman charged in JHU researcher's death

Murder charges to be dropped in exchange for testimony

May 13, 2011|By Tricia Bishop, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore prosecutors have cut a deal with a woman charged in the stabbing death of a Johns Hopkins researcher, agreeing to drop murder charges in exchange for testimony against her lover in a case that became a rallying point during last year's heated state's attorney's race.

Lavelva Merritt, 23, pleaded guilty to robbery and conspiracy to commit robbery, saying that her co-defendant stabbed Stephen Pitcairn last summer and that she punched the victim as he fell to the ground, stealing his cellphone while he lay there.

If she sticks to that story in the case against John Wagner, who's scheduled for trial next month, Merritt will be sentenced to 30 years in prison, with half of the time suspended, for a total of about 15 years followed by three years' probation.

"If you do not cooperate, if you lie when you get on the stand … the state could go forward on the murder charges against you," Merritt's court-appointed attorney, William L. Welch III, warned his client, according to a video recording of Wednesday's hearing in Baltimore Circuit Court.

Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein declined to comment on the deal, saying through a spokesman that it would be inappropriate to discuss a pending case — even one that was a frequent topic last summer while he campaigned to unseat former top prosecutor Patricia C. Jessamy.

Standing on 26th Street in Charles Village two days after the attack on Pitcairn on July 25 and a few blocks from the site of the stabbing, Bernstein vowed to make it his "mission and goal" to prosecute violent repeat offenders like Wagner, 38, who had been convicted of assault and armed robbery but had evaded significant jail time.

"If the state's attorney had done her job … Stephen Pitcairn might still be alive today," said then-candidate Bernstein, who bested Jessamy in the November primary to win the position.

He later added: "We need to stop this revolving door in which violent criminals are arrested only to see their charges dismissed or spend a short period of time in jail and then return to the street to commit more acts of violence."

If Wagner's trial goes forward as planned, the justice could be considered relatively swift for both defendants. Murder cases can languish for years in the city's legal system, held up by DNA analysis delays and a lack of available courtrooms.

Neither Wagner's public defender nor Merritt's lawyer returned messages about the deal Friday.

Charles Village crime watchdog Stephen Gewirtz, who checks for case developments nightly, said the agreement appears reasonable if it leads to a murder conviction against Wagner.

"I definitely have the impression that he was the violent one," Gewirtz said, noting that Merritt's criminal record appears to include only nonviolent drug crimes. He questioned how much of the 15 years she would actually serve, however.

"It will probably be more like 10," he said.

Most inmates serve between 70 percent and 80 percent of their sentences, according to corrections officials, though some people convicted of nonviolent crimes serve only a quarter of their time.

Merritt was on probation for drug dealing when Pitcairn was robbed, which could result in a violation that adds nearly six more years in prison to her tally. A hearing is set for July.

Pitcairn's mother, reached by telephone, declined to comment on the deal or her son's death. "I'm really not able to talk about it on so many levels," Gwen Pitcairn said.

The seeds for Merritt's plea arrangement were planted last fall, according to statements made in court, when the defendant met with homicide detectives and Assistant State's Attorney Joshua Felsen to confess her involvement and summarize Wagner's.

She made a taped statement last month outlining those details, which became the basis for her plea deal — something both Felsen and Welch were apparently hoping to keep secret. They began the hearing Wednesday discussing with Baltimore Circuit Judge Gale E. Rasin whether the court file could be sealed.

"We would not want the [taped statement], the written plea agreement, in the court file where any member of the press or anybody can just come in and get it and take it out," Merritt's attorney, Welch, told the judge.

Rasin said that a seal seemed unnecessary and pointed out that a video recording of the proceeding would still be accessible, which both sides acknowledged.

The hearing lasted an hour and laid out what happened that summer night, when a young man's life was cut short over his wallet and an iPhone.

Merritt, who claims she was diagnosed as a child with attention deficit hyperactivity and bipolar disorders, said she was feeling "hyper" that night, but "understood completely what was going on."

According to a statement of facts, read into the record by Felsen and approved by Merritt, she and Wagner lived together with seven other people — including Merritt's mother — in a two-bedroom apartment on Maryland Avenue, just a few blocks away.

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