“Step left, step left if you know what’s best for you,” Urbanski warns before fatally stabbing Richard Collins III with a folding knife, police alleged in charging documents.
Urbanski, according to his defense attorneys, was “out-of-his-mind drunk” at the time. Eight hours after he was arrested in Collins’s slaying, his attorneys said, Urbanski showed a blood alcohol concentration of 0.10, higher than the legal limit in Maryland of 0.08.
A year and a half after the killing, a jury is expected to weigh evidence and testimony about whether Urbanski murdered Collins and, if so, whether the fatal stabbing was a planned, racially motivated attack or the actions of an intoxicated person who did not act intentionally. Central to the hate-crime charge, according to experts, is how the jury will interpret racially charged material that Urbanski had on his phone in the months leading up to the stabbing and his state of mind during the attack.
Jury selection began Monday for an expected two-week trial in Prince George’s County Circuit Court, where Urbanski, of Severna Park, was indicted on charges of first-degree murder and a hate crime resulting in death.
Frederick M. Lawrence, an expert on hate crimes and a lecturer at Georgetown University Law Center, said the case “is a pretty classic presentation of a hate-crime trial where one of the hardest things to demonstrate is the biased motivation.”
“People are inclined to think that if you are racist and committed an interracial crime, you committed a hate crime,” Lawrence said. “But there has to be a causal link between racial animus and the crime.”
Collins, a newly commissioned second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, was killed May 20, 2017. Days away from graduating from Bowie State University, the 23-year-old had spent the evening visiting friends at the University of Maryland at College Park when the fatal encounter occurred, according to police. Urbanski, according to police, remained near the scene after the stabbing and was found with a folding knife in his pocket.
A jury would need to find Urbanski guilty of murder or manslaughter before deciding whether he is also guilty of a hate crime. Maryland law says a person may not kill because of “another’s race, color, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, gender, disability, or national origin, or because another is homeless.”
Lawrence said that hate-crime charges are relatively rare but that when they are used, their conviction rates are roughly similar to conviction rates for other charges.
Prosecutors are expected to zero in on what they deemed racist content found on Urbanski’s phone and his interaction with the material in the months preceding Collins’s killing, including his alleged association with a Facebook page called Alt-Reich: Nation.
Between Christmas Day 2016 and April 18, 2017, Urbanski interacted with content that included the image of a noose and a gun or with material that referred to black DNA or racist jokes, according to a judge’s description of the images detailed at a pretrial hearing for Urbanski.
Urbanski’s lawyers unsuccessfully tried to exclude the offensive material found on their client’s phone from being used at trial but were able to block the state from calling an expert to testify about Alt-Reich.
“The defendant has never been a member of the Alt-Reich,” Urbanski’s lawyers William C. Brennan and John McKenna argued in court filings that said the expert’s testimony would confuse and prejudice the jury. “Nevertheless, the State plans to introduce evidence the defendant was a member of a Facebook group called the ‘Alt-Reich: Nation’ which is not and has never been part of the ‘Alt-Reich’ political group/movement.”
Although University of Maryland police said the Facebook page included racist and inflammatory material, Brennan, in previous court hearings, said the group’s founders have denied affiliations with white supremacy. Citing a New York Times article featuring interviews with a group administrator and someone who founded the group, Brennan said the Facebook page was meant as satire.
Urbanski’s attorneys face a difficult battle, said Deborah Sines, who for nine years prosecuted cases involving racial violence for the criminal section of the Justice Department’s civil rights division before becoming a homicide prosecutor in the office of the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. Urbanski’s supposed level of intoxication is not necessarily a defense, she said.
“It goes to his state of mind, and the defense will of course argue to a jury he didn’t know what he was doing,” Sines said. “The problem with that defense is the two people who were passed up.”
Sines said the experts who can describe how Urbanski interacted with the material on his phone could also be key. At previous court hearings, Urbanski’s attorneys said there was no evidence about whether Urbanski had sought out the inflammatory material or had received it unsolicited.
“The trick to this case is for the defense to prove there is insufficient proof of racial animus, and the only way they can do that is to say: ‘Do not believe what is in his phone. It doesn’t mean anything,’ ” Sines said.
However, Principal Deputy State’s Attorney Jason B. Abbott said at a previous court hearing that there was a simple explanation for the images that addresses why only one of the people at the bus stop was stabbed.
Opening statements are expected to start Wednesday once jury selection concludes.