John Alexander Wagner was sentenced Friday to life in prison plus 20 years for the 2010 robbery and stabbing death of Stephen Pitcairn, a Johns Hopkins researcher whose murder led to a cry for change in Baltimore.
"I am going to show you the same mercy that you showed Mr. Pitcairn," Baltimore Circuit Judge Charles J. Peters said, ignoring a defense request for leniency based on Wagner's troubled upbringing, and sentencing the 38-year-old to maximum, consecutive terms for felony murder and conspiring to rob with a deadly weapon.
The sentence was small relief for Pitcairn's family, who traveled from various points on the East Coast for the brief, emotional proceeding. Gwen Pitcairn, Stephen's mother, called Wagner more "evil than human" during the hearing and said afterward that she hoped he would finally "sit and think about what he's done."
Wagner, whose criminal record goes back two decades, was on probation for cases in Baltimore County and the city last year, when he and girlfriend Lavelva Merritt went on the hunt for someone to rob. They targeted Pitcairn, who was two days shy of his 24th birthday, as the young man walked along St. Paul Street while talking on a cellphone to his mother, who was at home in Florida.
Wagner stabbed him and Merritt punched him as Gwen Pitcairn listened.
"To lose a child is devastating. To hear your child murdered on the phone … to hear that is something I have to bear every day of my life," she told the court, describing her son, who dreamed of being a doctor one day, as sweet and beautiful, and his death as a loss for the world.
"He was going to make a difference," she said. "He never got that opportunity."
Stephen's sister Emily Pitcairn, who is studying for her Ph.D. at Tufts University, also spoke, her voice breaking as she described the effect of her brother's death.
"Our whole family has been shattered," she said. "The family that I used to have isn't there anymore."
The case was a focus of last year's Baltimore state's attorney race and helped challenger Gregg L. Bernstein unseat longtime incumbent Patricia A. Jessamy by highlighting failures to keep violent repeat offenders off the streets.
Wagner has previous convictions for assault, robbery, and violating probation, yet he was frequently allowed to remain free. And in at least one instance, prosecutors dropped robbery charges against him despite surveillance video evidence.
"If the state's attorney had done her job ... Stephen Pitcairn might still be alive today," Bernstein said at the time, calling the murder "not just senseless, but preventable."
In a statement issued Friday, Bernstein expressed his office's "deepest condolences to the Pitcairn family and all of Stephen's friends" and called the case representative of his "efforts to successfully prosecute repeat violent offenders, and thereby make Baltimore a safer place."
Assistant State's Attorney Josh Felsen, who prosecuted the case, said he hoped the verdict and sentence give the Pitcairns a "small bit of peace."
On Friday, Assistant Public Defender Gregory Fischer outlined his client's difficult youth, attempting to explain the path that led Wagner to court. His father was an alcoholic drug user who beat Wagner with extension cords, fishing rods and baseball bats — once knocking the boy unconscious when he was about 6, Fischer said. His mother taught him to steal as a child, sending him on illegal errands to retrieve "food, clothes and jewelry." He was shuffled through group homes as an adolescent, and struggled with depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder, Fischer said.
"Mr. Wagner is not the monster he's being made out to be," Fischer said, asking that Wagner be given a reduced sentence so he could participate in a prison program that offers job and life training. "The action, activity, that took place here is monstrous, but not Mr. Wagner."
Wagner, who was convicted by a jury in August, wouldn't acknowledge taking part in the crime.
"I cannot stand and apologize, be apologetic to this family. … I had no part in it," he said, claiming innocence and injustice. "There's still a killer out there," he said.
Merritt, 25, pleaded guilty to robbery charges for her role in the attack and is scheduled for sentencing Nov. 7.