A Stolen Soul

The accused wanted to speak.

Attorney Samuel Brave stood and told the court: ''The defense calls the defendant, James W. Langhorne.''

Langhorne walked slowly from the defense table where he had sat for the past five days. He had listened calmly to each of the state's witnesses testify that he had robbed and killed a young man from Maine and left him to bleed to death on a cold November night.

Now it was his turn to tell the story. The Baltimore courtroom fell silent.

The jurors slid forward in their seats. The prosecutors held their pens ready to take notes. Jea Chung and Brenda Lawson watched anxiously as Langhorne raised his hand to be sworn in.

Everyone was eager to hear what Langhorne had to say - everyone but Yong Jones. After waiting four years to see her son's killer punished, she couldn't bear to listen to Langhorne testify. She was afraid she'd cry out and cause a mistrial.

Brave began by asking Langhorne about his youth. Now 24, Langhorne told jurors he'd grown up in a working-class neighborhood in the northwestern part of the city. He had dropped out of school in the 10th grade after he met Nicole Woodard. By the time he was 17 and she was 18, their first child, Michelle, was born. Within a year, they had a second daughter, Jessica.

He began shooting heroin into his veins when he was 18. His fondness for the drug got him in plenty of trouble. He did time for selling drugs, for carrying an illegal handgun, for using drugs while on probation and for assaulting Nicole.

''I turned to drugs when I got lonely and seemed to be losing everything,'' Langhorne said, his eyes filling with tears. ''I love my kids.''

The faces of a few women jurors softened as they studied the accused.

While serving prison time for a probation violation in March 1996, Langhorne said he met up with an old friend, Alfred Brown.

''Brown was talking about armed robbery and what was going on in the neighborhood. I told Brown, 'Skip, the man you used to hang with, I seen him shoot a dude during a robbery.' ''

Some of the court spectators wrinkled their foreheads in disbelief. Langhorne's story about Skip conflicted with the testimony of Nicole Woodard. Two days earlier, Nicole, Langhorne's former girlfriend, had told jurors Langhorne had blamed the shooting on his friend ''Wink.''

The jurors eyed Langhorne closely as he recounted his actions the night of Laurence Jones' murder. Langhorne explained that he had spent the evening playing with his kids until they fell asleep. He left his home at 1 a.m. to call a friend to see when he got out of work.

His friend worked at a pizza joint and was out making deliveries. So, Langhorne said, he stood on the corner of Bank and Eden streets, waiting to make another call.

As he lingered by the phone booth he saw Skip, a local hustler from the neighborhood known for pulling stickups. ''Skip said, 'Hey, what's up,' and then he walked up Bank Street,'' Langhorne said.

Langhorne explained that he tried to reach his friend one more time on the phone and then headed up Bank Street himself.

''As I started to walk I saw two guys standing there. I heard a gunshot go off. I looked. I see a dude coming across the street toward me. So I ran. I saw him coming my way.

''I didn't know who was running behind me. I ran. Everybody started running.''

He arrived home breathless and shaken. He remembered telling his girlfriend Nicole: ''Somebody just got shot near Spring Court.''

''She says you were wearing a black coat with red lining and you reached into the pocket and pulled out a .32 or .22 gun. Were you carrying a gun at the time?''

''I was carrying a .22. When my kids and I walk the neighborhood I keep it with me. I've gotten robbed twice in the neighborhood. You aren't going to catch nobody in the projects without a gun.''

A few of the jurors nodded their heads in agreement.

''She says you came home and said, 'We just robbed somebody,' '' Brave said.

''I did not say that. I said 'I just seen a dude get shot.' I went downstairs and put the gun back in the cupboard.''

''Did you put your coat in the Dumpster?''

''I got rid of it because it had a rip under the arm,'' Langhorne said. ''Then I wanted to go back and see what happened.''

When he returned to Bank Street the police and ambulance hadn't arrived yet. Langhorne walked through Spring Court, the Perkins Project courtyard across from the shooting. He didn't see anyone on the street, so he turned around and walked toward a 7-Eleven.

''Ain't no one had conversation with me that night.''

''You didn't tell a man by the name of William Rice, 'I know you saw me but I didn't have anything to do with it?' ''

''He wasn't talking to me,'' Langhorne said, shrugging his shoulders.

''Mr. Langhorne, as God is your judge, did you kill anyone?'' Brave asked, his voice rising to a near shout.

''I never, ever killed a man in my life,'' Langhorne said defiantly.

''I didn't rob nobody. I was working and had money in my pockets. As God is my judge, if I need money I got my parents. Right now I'm sitting here in this courtroom and they're the only two people who believe me.

''I didn't do this,'' he said, his voice breaking as he wiped a tear from his eye.

Judge Kathleen O'Ferrall Friedman told the attorneys to prepare for closing arguments in the morning. The jury was expected to begin deliberating by noon Tuesday, Feb. 3, a week after the murder trial began.

Yong's nephew, Jea Chung, shook his head as the last juror walked from the courtroom. ''What a bunch of lies,'' Jea muttered, referring to Langhorne's testimony.

But Langhorne had made a different impression on the 12 people who would decide his fate. More than one juror went home that night thinking: This man is innocent.