The first-degree murder conviction returned against Bernard C. Welch by a D.C. Superior Court jury last Friday for the slaying of physician Michael Halberstam was based on murder committed in the commission of a felony -- in this case, the armed burglary of the Halberstam home -- and not on premediation.
A D.C. Superior Court jury yesterday convicted Bernard C. Welch of the premeditated murder of Washington cardiologist Michael Halberstam after deliberating less than two hours.
Welch, who was accused of fatally shooting Halberstam last Dec. 5 during a burglary attempt at the cardiologist's Northwest Washington home, also was convicted of the armed burglary of Halberstam's house, four counts of second-degree burglary, four grand larceny charges, and a charge of carrying a pistol without a license. He faces up to life in prison for each of the 11 convictions.
Welch sat impassively throughout the week-long trial, but he sighed as the jury of nine women and three men returned its verdict late yesterday afternoon. At one point, Welch leaned over to his defense attorney, Sol Z. Rosen, and asked if one of the women on the jury was crying and whether there was any significance to it.
"I think he expected it, in all candor," Rosen said of Welch's reaction. "He thanked me for a good job. The case was overwhelming." Rosen said he will appeal the verdict.
Halberstam's widow, Elliot Jones, expressed satisfaction with the verdict, saying, "Bernard Welch is trash. I've known people like him all my life. Where I came from -- the backwoods of Mississippi -- you know, they had rotten teeth, they killed deer out of season. If he'd been from Mississippi, he'd belong to the Klan.
"I wish Michael were here," Jones said. "It [the trial] was a catharsis. I have to settle down being lonely."
There was little doubt among the jurors as to Welch's guilt, according to juror Margit Friedrich, a retired librarian.
"We were pretty unanimous, but some wanted to take their time," she said. "They didn't want to be rushed."
"The whole thing was unanimous really," said jury foreman John Witherspoon. "Nobody hesitated."
Some of the jurors, including Friedrich, apparently were ready to render an immediate guilty verdict, while other jurors protested that they did not want to be rushed into announcing a decision. Never, however, was there any doubt among the 12 that Welch was guilty, Friedrich said.
She said that when the jurors entered the jury room at 1:45 p.m., they discussed the case for about 30 minutes. Then, she said, some of the jurors decided to accept the offer of presiding Chief Judge H. Carl Moultrie I to examine pieces of the evidence.
So the jury sent a note to Moultrie requesting that several items be sent into them, including the pistol used to kill Halberstam, the doctor's coat with its several bullet holes, the blue jeans Welch wore the night of the shooting and some of the stolen jewelry Welch allegedly was carrying when the dying Halberstam spotted the man he believed was his assailant, shouted "That's the guy!" and rammed him with his car.
The jury also asked that Moultrie reinstruct them on the difference between first-degree, premeditated murder -- of which it ultimately convicted Welch -- and second-degree murder, in which there is no premeditation. Rosen had asked that the jury be instructed to consider the lesser murder charge as an alternative to the first-degree count.
When the jury eventually returned to the courtroom, foreman Witherspoon announced that the jury had decided unanimously to convict Welch on all 11 counts. But when Rosen asked that each juror be polled individually, one juror inadvertently said that Welch was "not guilty" of burglarizing Halberstam's house.
Moultrie ordered the jurors back into the jury room until they sorted out their verdict. Friedrich attributed the error to a juror's nervousness. The jury returned after another 20 minutes and this time all 12 announced they had found Welch guilty on all counts.
Rosen said, however, that the juror's misstatement may be a basis for appealing Welch's conviction. "We're going to just keep fighting," Rosen said. He also said that a series of rulings Moultrie made to admit various pieces of evidence at the trial will be appealed.
"It was not a tough case," Friedrich said. "All the evidence presented was overwhelming. Mr. Rosen had mighty little to present."
Friedrich said that most of the jurors suspected that Welch's common-law wife, Linda Sue Hamilton, who testified both on his behalf and as a government witness, knew more than she was saying.
As for Halberstam's widow, Friedrich said, "Our hearts went out to her. She was very convincing, which is the only thing that counts."
During closing arguments, Assistant U.S. Attorney Alexia Morrison echoed Halberstam's own last words, repeatedly pointing at Welch, who was sitting at the defense table, and declaring: "That's the guy who drove the silver Mercedes . . . That's the guy who completed four very successful burglaries, but hadn't quite enough . . . That's the guy who shot [Michael] Halberstam . . . That's the guy who was recognized by Michael Halberstam."
Morrison told the jury that by deciding to turn his car in the direction of Welch and hit the fleeing burglar, Halberstam had "marked his killer" for them. Halberstam's dying action apparently impressed the jurors. Jury member Friedrich noted that Halberstam "did not hurt him [Welch] seriously, just enough to mark him."
Rosen claimed that Welch was an "innocent bystander" to the Halberstam killing, that the gun found by Welch might have been "thrown there by . . . the real killer in this case." He also argued that the wiresnips and screwdriver found near Welch were tools Welch "obviously needed around his [Great Falls, Va.] house" because of construction going on there.
But after the jury returned its verdict, Rosen said, "The case was overwhelming, [like] facing an army. My God, [it] was just like two against the world."
Much of the government's case against Welch rested on separate identifications made of him by Halberstam's widow, Elliot Jones, and Mamie Stallworth, a neighbor's maid.
Jones, who testified that she heard an intruder threaten her husband before the shooting, picked Welch's voice out from among several she heard at a voice lineup conducted by police. Jones also claimed to have viewed a portion of Welch's face as her dying husband hit Welch with his car.
Stallworth claimed she saw Welch casing Halberstam's house in a silver Mercedes around noon on Dec. 5, and later she saw him again when his car was blocking hers as she tried to exit from the tiny cul-de-sac where the Halberstam's lived. At a visual police lineup, Stallworth instantly picked Welch out as the man she saw twice that day, according to a videotape shown at the trial.
Through ballistics tests, the government also linked the bullets that killed Halberstam to the gun found at the scene. The gun was linked to Welch through a prior burglary of an FBI agent's home in Virginia.
Police testified that the gun, found 10 yards from Welch's body after he was hit by Halberstam's car, matched one of the two revolvers stolen from the FBI agent's house three weeks before the Halberstam shooting. During that burglary, two of the agent's revolvers, a pair of handcuffs, an identification badge, jewelry and a tiny portrait of the agent's children were taken.
During a search of Welch's house, the agent's other gun, the handcuffs, badge, jewelry and photograph of the children were seized by police. The government also introduced evidence to link the gun to Welch by showing that gunpowder residue had been found in Welch's left pants pocket the night he was arrested.
Welch has been held at the D.C. Jail since shortly after his arrest on the night of the killing. Moultrie said he will sentence Welch on May 22.
Prosecutors said that because Welch has been convicted of at least three felonies in the past, any of yesterday's convictions could carry a life sentence.
Welch, who escaped from a New York prison seven years ago and has bragged about his life of crime, also faces burglary and rape charges in Northern Virginia. Prosecutors said they do not know where he will be tried next.