A Stolen Soul

Twelve were picked to decide the accused killer's fate.

Three men and nine women would sit in judgment of James W. Langhorne. They were janitors, clerks, a bank teller, a church deacon and a couple of retirees. Like Langhorne, all of the jurors were black.

These 12 people would decide whether Langhorne took part in a deadly robbery that left Laurence Jones Jr. bleeding from a gunshot wound to the face on a cold and dirty Baltimore sidewalk.

None of the jurors was eager to sit on this murder case. They knew the stakes were high for both the defendant and the victim's family.

Juror Jean Randall was a computer analyst and a mother of three. She'd been selected as a juror before on cases involving robbery and drug crimes, but never murder. She worried about convicting an innocent man and putting him away for life.

Valerie Betty had never been a juror, and the thought of sitting in judgment of another person on such a serious crime unnerved her. Like Randall, she was a working mother. She told herself: ''I hope and pray we do the right thing.''

Despite their uneasiness, these 12 jurors and two alternates found themselves seated in the courtroom of Judge Kathleen O'Ferrall Friedman, waiting for James W. Langhorne's murder trial to begin.

Yong Jones eyed the jury. They seemed like good people, decent people, she thought. Still, she worried. She knew that Langhorne's attorney had managed to strike all but one white person - an alternate juror - from the panel.

''Will they be fair to Junior?'' Yong asked herself.

Some of the jurors considered the defense attorney's actions in their own minds. ''This attorney believes just because we're black we're going to side with this defendant,'' thought Thelma Matthews, a middle-aged computer programmer who grew up in Baltimore's ghettos.

On a Thursday afternoon, as the sun sent hazy streams of light into the ornate, high-ceilinged court-room, Ilene Nathan, one of the two prosecutors, stood to give her opening statement to the jury. A veteran prosecutor, Nathan was a serious-minded attorney known for winning tough cases. She wore her hair cropped short, and she dressed in conservative dark suits.

She spoke in a stern and steady voice. She told the jury the young man killed in the homicide case before them represented the 313th victim to die violently during the most murderous year in the city's history.

''It is just a number to people who keep records in Baltimore, but in a few days you will see that it represents a lost future,'' Nathan said. ''He came from Maine to Baltimore to live so he could fulfill his dream to work with mentally retarded children. But he was gunned down in another senseless act of violence on your streets.''

Nathan explained that she would present witnesses who would put James Langhorne on the 1400 block of Bank Street on the night of Nov. 20, 1993. A witness who watched him run past seconds after the 3 a.m. shooting saw him return later wearing different clothes, declaring that he had nothing to do with the deadly robbery.

The state would also call Langhorne's girlfriend to the stand. She would say that Langhorne came home that night upset and worried about a robbery he and a friend had just pulled. A robbery that ended with a man shot and his gold ring and wallet stolen.

An old buddy of Langhorne's would testify that Langhorne bragged to him about the murder while the two of them were doing time in prison.

''Do your duty,'' Nathan said, looking into the eyes of the jurors. ''Do justice for Laurence Jones and find James Langhorne accountable for this murder.''

Langhorne's attorney, Samuel Brave, rose slowly from the defense table. With his curly hair, awkward gait and comical mannerisms, he reminded many of the jurors and trial spectators of Columbo, the fictional character in a 1970s television series about a bumbling, but bright, detective.

''Yes, a tragedy occurred in 1993,'' Brave told the jury. ''But I'm here to see a second tragedy doesn't occur. There was a rush to judgment in this case to convict a man not responsible for the murder. This case, more so than any case I've ever experienced, has been influenced by forces outside the police department.''

Brave told jurors about the hundreds of letters Yong had written to politicians in Maine and Maryland - even to the president - urging them to pressure the police to find her son's killer.

''You're going to find that attempts were made to bring this case to resolution from all corners of the nation,'' Brave said. ''No police department could possibly have been immune to the pressure brought upon them to make an arrest in this case.''

Isn't it odd, Brave asked jurors, that after three years the case is suddenly solved in November 1996 and an arrest is made as a result of a jailhouse snitch?

''And now the pressure is off the police department. Decide for yourself. Does all this pressure play a big part in how this man came to be sitting at the defense table?''

Yong listened to Brave and gripped the locket that held her dead son's picture. Her chest burned and she placed a hand over her heart. She never imagined that her crusade to rescue her son's soul would taint his murder case. She worried that her efforts to see justice done might now help set this accused killer free.

She left the courtroom before Brave finished his opening statement. ''All I am asking for is justice and fairness,'' she said as she sat trembling on a hallway bench. ''Now they are going to use that against me? I am the mother. I did what any mother would do.''

Yong took short gulps of air as she imagined her son's soul forever trapped between heaven and hell because his killer went unpunished.

''Oh no, Junior,'' she cried. ''All Momma wanted to do is help you.''