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Feb 27 2009

Dart Award Winner

A Stolen Soul

Shadow of Doubt Haunts Courtroom

Not guilty.

Not guilty.

Brenda Lawson tried to prepare Yong Jones for the worst, the chance that the jury foreman would soon speak those words.

Yong nodded her head and quietly answered, ''I know.''

Like Brenda, Yong's nephew, Jea Chung, dreaded the upcoming verdict. At this point in the trial, the state didn't seem to have enough evidence to convict James Langhorne of killing Yong's son.

They didn't have any eyewitnesses to the shooting. Police hadn't found the murder weapon or Laurence Jones' stolen ring and wallet. And the state had no physical evidence linking Langhorne to the murder scene.

''If I was a juror, I'd still have a shadow of a doubt in my mind,'' Brenda confided to Jea one evening after court.

''I hope they have an ambulance ready for my aunt when the verdict comes in,'' Jea said.

He was also worried about his own mother. Like her sister, Yong Im had hardly slept or eaten since the trial began. ''Someone is going to have to hold both of them up.''

On Thursday morning, the third day of the trial, Nicole Woodard took the stand. She strode forward confidently in her pink blouse and black skirt. Nicole was Langhorne's former girlfriend and the mother of his two young daughters.

She told the jury that she and Langhorne had lived together for about four years at the Ballou Court housing projects. The projects were a few blocks away from Bank Street, where Laurence Jones was robbed and killed. She and Langhorne were still living together the night of Nov. 20, 1993.

That evening, she said, James came home sometime around 3 a.m. He was frantic. Nicole got out of bed and asked him: ''What's wrong with you?''

Langhorne paced back and forth in their living room. Finally he explained: ''I saw someone get shot around the corner.''

''Then why you so upset?'' she asked, knowing shootings were as common as Sundays in the Ballou Court neighborhood.

''You don't want to know,'' he told her.

''I don't want to know what?'' she pressed him.

''My friend shot somebody and I was there,'' he said. ''I was right there and someone might have seen me. Wink robbed somebody.''

He told her he and his friend had gotten some jewelry and a wallet. He showed her the billfold and a gold ring.

Langhorne had been carrying a gun that night. When he got home, Nicole watched him put the gun and the black and red coat he'd been wearing into a trash bag.

He took the bag and headed out the door, telling her: ''I'm going to my brother's for a while.''

Langhorne's attorney, Samuel Brave, stood to begin his cross-examination. Rubbing his chin, he asked Nicole: ''So why didn't you come forward about this murder?''

''I didn't know if it was true. I didn't see anything on television. I just brushed it off.''

Ironically, it was Langhorne who had led police to her door. After they picked him up on the murder charge in November 1996, Langhorne told the cops it was probably his ex-girlfriend who had fed them lies and gotten him in trouble. Above: Defense attorney Samuel Brave consults his calendar as he answers questions from Baltimore reporters outside the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse during James Langhorne's trial earlier this year.

Figuring Nicole knew something about the murder, Homicide Detective J.T. Brown called her and asked her to come talk with him. She talked with Brown for five hours before she gave a taped statement.

His voice ringing with accusation, Brave asked her: ''Did it take five hours to get the script straight? What were you talking about for five hours?''

''James Langhorne,'' she replied evenly.

Brave shifted to a new subject and asked Nicole about her drug habit. She admitted she began using heroin in her early teens.

''Are you having trouble staying awake now?'' Brave asked, implying that Nicole might be coming down from a crack high as she testified.

''No, I'm fine,'' she answered, scowling.

Brave turned on his heels and grinned. Jurors studied Nicole's eyes trying to see for themselves if she was strung out.

Satisfied he'd done some damage to her credibility, Brave moved on to Nicole's motivation for testifying. He asked her to look back to January 1993, when James came home after serving seven months in jail for selling drugs and carrying an illegal handgun.

''When he did come home, wasn't he absolutely flabbergasted when he saw the condition of you and your children?''

''No.'' Above: Maryland prosecutor Ilene Nathan meets with Yong Jones in Baltimore in February. "You never can tell what 12 people will do," Nathan said during the trial of the man accused of killing Jones' son. "We're doing our best."

''He didn't tell you you had to get off drugs because it was affecting you and your children? Didn't he say these children need to come with me?''

''No. When he came home I was working and I wasn't doing any drugs.''

''Miss Woodard, is the reason you're here to testify today because you were assured your children wouldn't be removed if you came to court?''

''No. That's not true,'' she answered, glaring at Langhorne, who scribbled notes on a legal pad.

''You're here to do your duty, to tell the truth and make sure justice is done?'' Brave said sarcastically.

''Yes,'' she told him.

As the trial broke for lunch, Yong tried to get up from the court bench, but fell to her knees. Prosecutor Cassandra Costley walked over to Yong and tried to comfort her. Like Yong, Costley had an only child. Her son was 24, the same age Larry Jones was when he was murdered. Costley couldn't imagine losing her boy.

She held Yong's hand and told her: ''You go get some nourishment. A little rice. A little soup.''

Prosecutor Ilene Nathan hugged Yong and offered her an update on the case. ''It's going the way we want it to. But you never can tell what 12 people will do. We're doing our best.''

''I know,'' Yong whispered back.

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Barbara A. Walsh

  • Barbara A. Walsh is a Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter working on special projects for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. Walsh was one of two principal reporters at the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, who worked on a yearlong series about Willie Horton Jr., a convicted killer and furlough escapee whose crimes drew attention to the flawed Massachusetts prison system. The series won a 1988 Pulitzer Prize.

David A. Rodgers

  • Rodgers has been a photographer at The Portland Newspapers since 1988. He previously worked for the Rocky Mountain News and the Boston Globe. Rodgers won third place in the National Press Photographers' Association's international pictures of the year contest this year for his work on the newspapers' Island Odyssey series, which ran in the summer of 1996. Rodgers also has won numerous regional and state photography awards.

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