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Manslaughter Plea Ends Ballou Case

Teenager Avoids Retrial in Slaying Of Football Star

By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 4, 2005; Page B03

A teenager who said he acted in self-defense last year when he shot a fellow student inside a Southeast Washington high school pleaded guilty yesterday to a manslaughter charge.

The plea came nearly three months after a jury acquitted Thomas J. Boykin of murder charges in the shooting of James Richardson, 17, at Ballou Senior High School. Boykin, 19, was facing a retrial on a charge of manslaughter while armed, an offense that calls for a mandatory prison term.

Pearl Boykin says she is relieved that the ordeal is over. She says her son, Thomas, "didn't mean to shoot anyone." (Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)

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By pleading guilty to manslaughter instead of manslaughter while armed, Boykin avoids, on that charge, the mandatory minimum five-year term for using a gun in the killing. Sentencing guidelines at D.C. Superior Court recommend a term of four to 10 years for manslaughter for a defendant like Boykin with no previous convictions. The prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen J. Pfleger, said in court that he plans to seek more than 10 years.

Judge Robert I. Richter set sentencing for June 16.

The Feb. 2, 2004, shooting ended a brawl in a hallway outside the Ballou cafeteria. Standing in court yesterday morning, Boykin admitted that firing the gun created a risk of serious injury or death that could not be legally justified. The gunshots also grazed another student, prosecutors said.

But Boykin once again maintained that he was not trying to kill Richardson, a star football player who had stirred up long-standing animosities between his Condon Terrace neighborhood and Boykin's Barry Farm neighborhood.

"I didn't intend on hurting anyone," Boykin told the judge.

Shot three times, including once in the heart, Richardson, known as J-Rock, died at Washington Hospital Center. Boykin fled but was quickly identified by witnesses, and he surrendered to police the next day.

The case went to trial in November. The jury acquitted Boykin two weeks later of first- and second-degree murder charges after hearing him testify about the fear that he said led him to open fire. Jurors were split on the manslaughter charge.

The jury convicted Boykin of assault with a dangerous weapon and a firearms offense, both stemming from the grazing of the second student. The firearms charge carries a five-year minimum prison term.

By conceding that he was the gunman, Boykin had forced the prosecution to focus not on what he did but why he did it. He was poised and consistent while testifying, and prosecutors could not convince the jury that he meant to kill Richardson.

After poring over his testimony from the fall, prosecutors would have been better prepared to challenge Boykin's account in a retrial.

The killing took place a few months after students fought in the Ballou cafeteria, prompting the suspension of some Condon Terrace students and many Barry Farm students. By last February, only a handful of Barry Farm students were still in school. Fearful of the Condon Terrace students, especially Richardson, Boykin and a couple of his friends bought a gun and smuggled it into school on the day of the shooting, witnesses testified.

The .380-caliber pistol was in Boykin's pocket when he saw Richardson near the cafeteria that morning. Smiling at Boykin, Richardson called him "pretty." The taunt enraged Boykin, who punched Richardson, sending him to the floor and setting off the brawl, witnesses said.

In his testimony last fall, Boykin told the jury that he reached for the gun and began firing because he thought Richardson was reaching for a knife or gun.

Richardson's mother, Michelle Richardson-Patterson, declined to talk about the case as she left the courthouse yesterday, saying only, "To God be the glory."

Boykin's mother, Pearl, who left the courtroom in tears, said she was relieved that the ordeal of the past year was over but disappointed by the outcome. Her son, she said, "didn't mean to shoot anyone. He was just trying to protect himself."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company