A Stolen Soul

As dusk blanketed Baltimore, starlings, hundreds of them, returned to their nightly roost outside Judge Kathleen O'Ferrall Friedman's fourth-floor courtroom.

The sound of the birds fluttering and chirping outside the windows had often signaled the end of testimony each day in James W. Langhorne's murder trial.

Now, on this February evening, the starlings darted frenetically beyond the courtroom walls as the jury forewoman knocked on the door. The room fell silent.

The jury had reached a verdict.

Yong Jones bit her tongue to keep from screaming. Within minutes, she would know whether the man seated 20 feet from her would be punished for killing her son, Laurence Jones Jr.

She had fought four years for justice. She had begged and badgered the Baltimore police and politicians in Maryland, Maine and even the Oval Office to solve her son's case. Now she would hear the jury speak words that would either free her son's soul or condemn it to roam between heaven and hell for eternity. Her chest ached with fear.

Yong's younger sister, Yong Im Chung, held Yong's hand and prayed to God and to her dead parents. ''Please. Help us.''

Yong's nephew, Jea Chung, tapped his feet on the floor. ''Guilty. Guilty,'' he chanted to himself. Brenda Lawson, Yong's close friend, held her breath.

Langhorne's parents and his sister sat on the court bench behind Yong. They too could barely breathe as they waited to hear their son's fate.

Langhorne and his attorney stood. Above: Yong Jones pulls away from the cameras and lights that surround trial participants as they exit the Baltimore courthouse where her son's killer had been found guilty of murder.

The footsteps of the 12 jurors sounded like thunder as they walked down the stairs from the deliberation room into the jury box. The attorneys searched the jurors' faces, looking for clues to their decision.

The only sound in the room came from the starlings as they continued to chirp and flutter outside the windows.

''Have you reached a verdict?'' the court clerk asked.

''Yes,'' the forewoman replied.

''In the case of the state of Maryland vs. James Langhorne, what is your verdict as to the charge of first-degree felony murder?''

''Guilty,'' the forewoman said clearly and forcefully.

Yong buried her head into her nephew's shoulder. Her tiny body shook as she sobbed.

Langhorne took a step back and blinked.

Tears flowed down Yong's cheeks. Her sister wept beside her. ''My sister can live now,'' Yong Im whispered.

The bailiffs led Langhorne past Yong, giving him a chance to steal a quick glance at her. Yong stared back at him. ''You are the one,'' she thought to herself. The killer's passive stare was gone. Yong searched for remorse in his eyes as he shuffled past. Instead he gave her a dark, cold glare as if to say: ''So I did it, what do you care?''

Yong knew it was unlikely that police would arrest the man who had helped Langhorne rob her son. But it did not matter. In her heart, she believed it was Langhorne who fired a bullet into her son's face. And now he would finally be punished. Above: James W. Langhorne is led from Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse in Baltimore in February after being found guilty of first-degree felony murder in the November 1993 death of Laurence Jones Jr. of Bangor.

Yong stared at the killer's back as the bailiffs escorted him from the courtroom. When she tried to stand, she swooned to the floor. Her nephew helped her to her feet. ''Justice,'' she said, crying.

Though she was wracked with exhaustion, there was one final trip Yong had to make in Baltimore. She needed to visit the 1400 block of Bank Street, where her son was robbed, shot and left to die.

''I've got to tell Junior everything is going to be OK now,'' she said. ''His soul is waiting there for me.''

Later that evening, a hotel bus driver took Yong, her family and Lawson to the dark street. Boarded-up row houses shadowed the deserted sidewalk.

The glass skyscrapers and pricey hotels of Baltimore's Inner Harbor towered just a few blocks away.

Yong stepped to the sidewalk where her son had been found bleeding with just a single nickel in his pocket. Falling to her knees, she pounded on the pavement. ''My baby died here,'' she wailed. ''My son lie here.''

Yong Im dropped to her knees too, weeping as she rubbed the sidewalk.

Yong's cries grew louder and louder. She howled like a wounded animal. Her dreadful keening pierced the still night air, unleashing four years of anguish.

''Aaaahhhh,'' she screamed over and over, as if wrestling with some unseen demon who pulled the torment from her body. Her cries drew shadows from the sand-colored brick housing projects across the street. Behind the chain-link fence that circled the apartments, strangers slowly stepped toward the sidewalk, straining to see who or what was releasing such agonized cries.

They listened in the darkness to a mother's final goodbye to her son, a mother who had come to the end of a grueling journey to rescue her son's soul.

Jea, who had stood silently watching his mother and aunt scream, suddenly became unnerved by the shadows. He yelled to Yong and his mother: ''C'mon, it's over now. It's over. Get up. Let it go.

''Let it go!'' he shouted, trying to pull the two women to their feet.

''Imagine him lying here,'' Yong choked.

''No, I don't want to imagine it,'' Jea snapped. ''It's over.''

''Yong, it's done,'' Lawson said softly, rubbing Yong's back. ''Tell your son it's all over. Tell him justice prevailed.''

Yong's wailing receded to whimpers, and then into silent sobs that shook her shoulders. She massaged the dirty sidewalk tenderly. Her tiny hands moved in small circles as she traced the ground where her son had lain.

''Rest in peace, honey,'' she whispered. ''You can rest in peace now. You're free. Momma loves you.''