The first of five suspects to be tried in last October's robbery and slayings at Stoney's restaurant in Prince George's County was convicted of second-degree murder last night, but acquitted of premeditated murder. The verdicts may suggest difficulty for the state in prosecuting some of the remaining cases.
James W. Edmonds, 25, who was convicted of two counts of second-degree murder and other charges, was among two holdup men who entered the restaurant in Clinton the night of Oct. 11 and committed what prosecutor Deborah Johnston called "one of the most outrageous crimes" in the county in months.
Two employees of Stoney's were shot to death execution-style in the $300 holdup, and two other men, including an off-duty police officer, were wounded.
Although Edmonds was not accused of firing a shot, he and three other suspects who allegedly waited outside the restaurant were charged with two counts each of first-degree premeditated murder under a state law that holds all participants responsible if one of them commits a killing during a robbery.
A juror in Edmonds's trial told WJLA-TV (Channel 7) last night that because Edmonds did not shoot either victim, one member of the panel was adamant about not issuing a verdict that could send Edmonds to prison for life without parole. Instead, the jury declared the slayings to be second-degree, or unpremeditated, murders. Each count carries a possible 30-year prison term.
Edmonds's attorney, Gary Ward, followed a strategy in the trial that was designed to separate his client altogether from the killings. In his closing statement, Ward conceded that the slayings were "executions" committed in the first degree, but he maintained that Edmonds was not responsible for them.
"Sounds sort of like a compromise to me," Ward said of the second-degree murder verdicts.
Edmonds also was convicted of armed robbery, assault with intent to murder, handgun offenses and other crimes carrying possible prison sentences totaling 300 years. But none excludes the possibility of parole.
Assistant State's Attorney Johnston, who will seek first-degree murder convictions against the accused gunman and the three suspects who allegedly waited outside Stoney's, declined to comment last night on Edmonds's case or on her hopes for the remaining four Circuit Court trials.
"I'm very disappointed," said homicide Detective Garland Price, who arrested Edmonds. "I feel sorry for the families. It seemed very clear cut."
Relatives of one of the victims, Kevin Shelley, 28, cried as the verdicts were read in Judge Vincent A. Femia's courtroom. The trial began Monday and the jurors deliberated for six hours before returning about 9 p.m.
Ward, who called no witnesses during the trial, conceded in his closing statement that Edmonds was one of the two holdup men inside the restaurant. But he argued that the state had failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that his client was as much responsible as the gunman for the shootings.
Under Maryland law, as prosecutor Johnston reminded the jurors in her closing statement, if the shots were fired "in furtherance" of the robbery, then all the participants in the holdup share responsiblity, regardless of who pulled the trigger.
She argued that the slayings of the restaurant manager, Shelley, and the chef, Arnold Batson, 27, clearly were "within the scope" of the robbery, and that as a result, Edmonds was as culpable as the gunman.
Ward pointed out that the law absolves his client of responsibility if the gunman killed the two men for some reason unrelated to the holdup.
He conceded to the jury that the killings were first-degree murders. However, reading from the statute, he suggested that Batson and Shelley were slain for "a fresh and independent" reason "outside or foreign to the common scheme" of the robbery.
Ward did not suggest what that "fresh and independent" reason might have been. But he was not compelled to do so, he noted. He reminded the jurors that legally it was up to the state to establish, beyond a reasonable doubt, a "direct causal connection between the robbery and the homicides." He said the prosecution failed to meet that burden.
Three witnesses, including the two wounded men, identified Edmonds as the robber who entered the restaurant with the gunman.
Judge Femia scheduled Edmonds's sentencing for July 9. Staff writer Debbie M. Price contributed to this report.