The Crime Scene: Man pleads guilty in case of slain D.C. principal

By Dan Morse
Monday, November 8, 2010; 12:49 PM

Update, 2:25 p.m.:

Alante Saunders has pleaded guilty to first-degree felony murder in the shooting death of principal Brian Betts. The plea deal calls for a life sentence with all but 40 years suspended.

Saunders's attorney, David Felsen, said the shooting was accidental during the course of a robbery. "Certainly no one deserved to die," he said.

Prosecutors said in court that Saunders entered a sex chat line and made detailed plans with Betts for the principal to leave the door open so Saunders could come in.

"His true intent was to rob him," said Assistant State's Attorney Sherri Koch. "During the course of the robbery, he shot Betts."

Felsen said after the hearing: "Mr. Betts engaged in a series of reckless behaviors. Unfortunately his risky behaviors made him an easy target."

Original Post:

A 19-year-old District man described as the central figure in the slaying of school principal Brian Betts is expected to plead guilty to first-degree murder this afternoon, according to law enforcement sources.

Prosecutors continue to have discussions with three remaining defendants in the case, although no deals have been reached with them, according to the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the negotiations.

Betts, the well-known and well-liked former principal of Shaw Middle School at Garnet-Patterson, was killed inside his Silver Spring home in April. His death captured national attention because he had been a key figure in efforts to reform Washington D.C.'s schools.

Alante Saunders is due in court at 1:30 p.m. Monday, according to court records.

Police have said that a small group of people arrived at Betts's home late on an April night. At least one of them had talked earlier with Betts on sex chat line, officials said.

The other three defendants originally charged with murder in the case are Sharif Lancaster, 18 at the time of this arrest, Deontra Gray, 18 at the time of the arrest, and Joel Johnson, 19 at the time of the arrest.

One of he possible plea deals would have Saunders receiving a sentence of no more than 40 years in prison. It's unclear if that is what was finally negotiated between the two sides.

Saunders has reason to take the deal: His fingerprints were found on the inside and outside of an SUV that was stolen the night Betts was killed, court papers say. Store surveillance cameras captured images that appeared to be Saunders using Betts's stolen credit cards to make purchases, according to the papers.

But Saunders's attorney, David Felsen, also had leverage: When Saunders spoke to detectives, Saunders never admitted involvement in the slaying. His most incriminating statement -- that he knew about the credit cards -- would not have been allowed to be shown to jurors at trial, because of a judge's order last month that Saunders hadn't been properly read his rights to remain silent or have an attorney.

Felsen declined to comment on the case.

Under the proposed Saunders plea deal, he would technically receive a suspended, life sentence. He likely will not have to serve the full 40 years.

Under Maryland prison rules, he can collect "good time" credits based on taking classes, learning a trade and staying out of trouble. For Saunders particular sentence, though, he would not be allowed to cash in those credits for at least 20 years, according to prison officials.

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