A Stolen Soul

Before the sky darkened on this winter day, Yong Jones would learn whether her son's stolen soul could finally rest in peace.

The Baltimore jury had gone behind closed doors to decide whether James W. Langhorne was guilty of robbing and killing her son, Laurence Jones Jr.

Along with determining Langhorne's fate, these 12 men and women would also shape the destiny of Yong and her son. Yong believed a guilty verdict would deliver justice to Laurence Jones' tormented soul, allowing it to rise to heaven. If his murder wasn't avenged, she believed his spirit would remain in limbo, forever damned to hover between heaven and hell.

She had done all a mother could do to bring this accused killer to trial. Now there was nothing left but prayer.

In a small, hot, stuffy room, the jurors sat around a dark wooden table. They were eager to put this murder trial behind them and return to their lives.

One of the jurors, Thelma Matthews, had four young kids and a computer programming job she needed to get back to. Though she felt sorry for the young man from Maine, she wasn't sure the state had proved its case against Langhorne.

''What if we're sending this guy to jail for the rest of his life and he's innocent?'' Matthews asked the other jurors.

Another juror felt uneasy about the letters Yong had written to politicians in Maine and Maryland. She worried that police were pressured to arrest the wrong man.

The jurors took a vote to see where they stood. Eight believed Langhorne was innocent. Three thought he was guilty. One was undecided.

Benjamin Fulton sighed. He knew it was going to be a long day. But he didn't care how many hours he spent in this dark, dingy room. He wasn't going to change his guilty verdict.

Fulton was a 62-year-old retired eye technician. He'd earned a living assisting optometrists in surgeries and eye examinations and was now enjoying a comfortable life.

A stout man who usually whistled as he left the courtroom each day, Fulton loved the opera, liked his shirts tailored and his ties handmade. And he drank his martinis dry, with a twist.

He had no doubt Langhorne had robbed Jones. He wasn't sure whether Langhorne had pulled the trigger or whether it was ''Wink'' or ''Skip,'' the mysterious characters Langhorne had tried to blame the shooting on. But it didn't matter. Fulton knew that under the law Langhorne was just as guilty.

''If I let that son of a bitch off, I won't be able to live with myself,'' Fulton thought.

The jurors shifted in their chairs and talked some more. Though several agreed that Langhorne helped rob Jones, few were certain he fired the fatal bullet.

''It doesn't matter if Langhorne was the shooter,'' Fulton argued. He reminded his fellow jurors of the judge's instructions on felony first-degree murder. ''To convict him of felony murder all we have to believe is that he was there taking part in the robbery.''

Fulton convinced the other jurors to ask the judge for a copy of the felony-murder law. After reading the law, several jurors agreed with Fulton.

But there were still plenty of jurors who weren't sure Langhorne had anything to do with the crime. Matthews was one of them. She didn't believe the state's witnesses.

She thought Alfred Brown, the jailhouse snitch, was an opportunist, and she believed Langhorne's girlfriend was out for revenge.

''So everybody is a liar except the defendant?'' Fulton asked. ''He admits to everything but taking part in the robbery. He says he was at the phone booth. He ran after the shooting. He went home and changed his clothes and came back. Why would he bother coming back to the crime scene?

''And what's he doing standing by a phone booth with a gun at 3 a.m.?''

Matthews had no use for this juror who wore fine clothes and lived in a fancy high-rent downtown apartment. Unlike Fulton, Matthews had grown up in the city's poor neighborhoods. She knew that plenty of people in the projects carried guns for protection and that many of them didn't have phones. Langhorne's actions didn't seem that unusual to her.

''You don't know what it's like to live in the ghetto,'' she told Fulton.

Like Matthews, juror Jean Randall had lived in some of the city's tough neighborhoods. Yet she sided with Fulton. If Langhorne was out at that hour, he was looking for trouble, she said.

Randall also believed that if Langhorne was innocent, he would have snitched on whomever did pull the trigger. ''I wouldn't go to jail for anybody,'' she told her fellow jurors. ''You're putting your life on the line for what?''

The jurors took another vote. They remained deadlocked. Weary of arguing, they broke for lunch.

While the jurors ate, Yong Jones sat in the state attorney's waiting room. She leaned her head on her sister's shoulder and wiped tears from her eyes. The jury had now been out for three hours. What was taking them so long? She cried.

''I promise Junior justice,'' she said softly. ''That's all I want. Justice. Fairness. That's all I live for.''

Fulton knew the prosecutors and Laurence Jones' family were probably worried sick about the verdict. But Fulton knew they had nothing to fret about. He wasn't going home without a guilty verdict. Fortified with a bowl of soup, a sandwich and a dry martini, Fulton was ready to do battle.

He repeatedly argued the details that linked Lang- horne to the robbery and murder. Fulton told his fellow jurors: ''Langhorne was on the street that night. He was seen running. He threw his clothes away. His girlfriend said he came home with a ring and a wallet.''

As the sunlight waned outside, the jurors, one by one, changed their minds. Even Matthews came to agree with Fulton.

''Even if he wasn't the shooter, I guess he was there and committed the robbery,'' Matthews said.

At 5 p.m., six hours after they'd been sequestered, the jury took another vote. It was unanimous. They were ready to deliver their verdict.

Before they headed downstairs to the courtroom, the jurors stood and said a prayer. Several felt sick.

''Lord, I hope we made the right decision,'' Matthews whispered.