Corey Jennings felt like the rug was pulled out from under him.

Several months earlier, Jennings learned through a family member that the man he shot nine years ago in Baltimore had died.

Now Jennings was facing a new indictment that contained a charge of first-degree murder. He was again looking at a potential life sentence.

Though he had already spent about a decade incarcerated during which time he said he devoted himself to growing and developing on a spiritual and educational level as well as becoming a better person, Jennings suddenly did not know what his future would hold.

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“What more do you want out of me?” Jennings said in a recent interview at the Maryland Correctional Institution - Jessup. “I didn’t commit a new crime.”

Jennings, 31, who grew up in West Baltimore, found himself in an unusual situation in the criminal justice system. He had already been convicted of attempted murder but was now being prosecuted several years later for murder arising from the same shooting. Double jeopardy did not apply because the charges contained an additional element.

“It just highlights some of the hard philosophical questions about criminal justice and punishment,” said David Jaros, faculty director of the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

‘I feel like the system scammed me’

On June 14, 2011, Baltimore Police Officer Chedais Jacques responded to Boarman Avenue near Pall Mall Road in Greenspring and found Ryan Watson in an alley suffering from a gunshot wound to the neck. He was paralyzed.

First responders took him to Sinai Hospital, where doctors immediately performed surgery.

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The lead investigator, Detective Joel Hawk, found witnesses and surveillance video. Law enforcement arrested and charged Jennings in the shooting.

In 2012, Jennings pleaded guilty in Baltimore Circuit Court to attempted first-degree murder and use of a handgun during the commission of a crime of violence for a sentence of life with all time suspended but 20 years in prison.

Nine years to the day of the shooting, Watson died. He was 34.

The Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner — which inspected the body and reviewed medical records instead of performing an autopsy — ruled that the manner of death was homicide.

When he accepted the plea agreement, Jennings said, he thought that factored in the possibility that the injuries from the shooting could later turn out to be fatal. He said he feels that people should be advised on the record that they could potentially again face prosecution.

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If he had known that he could be charged with murder in the future, Jennings said, he would not have taken the deal. He noted that he was essentially precluded from contesting the underlying facts and circumstances of the case.

“I feel like the system scammed me,” Jennings said, “by not letting me know that this could happen.”

‘The technical charge was there’

Assistant State’s Attorney Kurt Bjorklund learned from Lisa Goldberg, who at the time was the chief of the Homicide Division in the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office, that Watson had died.

Because Bjorklund had handled the attempted murder case, he was assigned to the homicide.

First, Bjorklund said, he spoke with Goldberg about the case. Next, he said, he reached out to Bernadette Wallace, Watson’s mother, to discuss whether to charge Jennings with murder.

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“If she wanted it charged,” Bjorklund said, “I was going to charge it.”

Wallace, he said, wanted to move forward.

But everything is a step-by-step process, Bjorklund said. Just because he obtained an indictment, he said, did not mean that he was going to seek the maximum sentence. Every case is different, he said.

Bjorklund said he met with family members on multiple occasions and listened to their input. He extended a plea agreement that called for Jennings to serve no additional time.

When Watson was alive, Bjorklund said, he told him to go ahead with the initial plea agreement.

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“The technical charge was there: He had already pled guilty to the act,” Bjorklund said. “In terms of proving it, it would not have been difficult.”

“But trying to look at it clinically from a criminal prosecution, we have someone who has already pled guilty and taken responsibility for what they did and been sentenced by a judge — and is currently serving that sentence,” he later added. “I did not feel that I could recommend more.”

The Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office has prosecuted at least three people in recent years for murder who were previously convicted of attempted murder in the same episode:

Howard County State’s Attorney Rich Gibson Jr. recalled how making a charging decision in a similar case was “one of the hardest choices I’ve ever had to make in my life.”

In 2020, Gibson said, he received a phone call from a woman who asked him to pursue murder charges in her daughter’s death. She had been bludgeoned with a hammer in 1979 when she was 15 and left for dead in the trunk of a car. The perpetrator was arrested and convicted of attempted murder in two separate attacks and sentenced to 60 years in prison.

The medical examiner’s office later ruled that the manner of death was homicide.

So, Gibson said he tasked one of his deputy state’s attorneys, Joshua Felsen, to investigate.

The parole agent glowingly spoke about the man, who had been out of prison for about one year. He had a job and a home, Gibson said.

The assailant, he said, had been incarcerated for 40 years. In Maryland, Gibson said, people convicted of murder are eligible for parole after serving less time.

Gibson decided against seeking a new indictment.

When people are victimized in certain cases, Gibson said, it’s impossible to undo the harm that they’ve experienced. He said it hurts to not be able to make it right when people have been robbed, raped or murdered.

“It was a hard one for me,” Gibson said.

“My sense of justice is such that I try to get equity or fairness for people,” he added. “It challenged my view of how to obtain justice for someone.”

‘You obviously were not the same person who were at the age of 18′

Wallace opposed the plea agreement that called for Jennings to serve no additional time. Her son survived for nine years after the shooting, she said, but his body, mind and soul deteriorated during that time.

“I had to take care of him in his last days in hospice. And his question was ‘Ma, why did they do this to me?’” Wallace said. “And I told him, ‘I don’t have an answer for that. But God is going to give you justice.’”

Though Jennings pleaded guilty to attempted murder and served 10 years, she said, he still had a life.

Circuit Judge Melissa M. Phinn described the case as a “very difficult situation” for all sides. She rejected the plea agreement.

Instead, Phinn said, she would accept a sentence of life with all time suspended but 30 years in prison.

“I think that’s the appropriate sentence,” Phinn said. “He’s the triggerman. He shot the gun.”

Later, Jennings pleaded guilty to first-degree murder after the state agreed to cap the maximum sentence at life with all time suspended but 30 years in prison. He was allowed to make the case for a lesser punishment.

During the hearing, Wallace recalled how her son lived in nursing homes and hospitals after being shot. He lost his dignity, mentality and heart. Now, she said, he was in her China closet — “in a box with my knick-knacks.”

Bjorklund said he fully supported her statement.

“She’s also more forgiving and arguably a lot more human than I am. Because I have a role as a prosecutor. And I’m trying to stick to that role right now,” Bjorklund said.

“But as a human, as a father, I could not be as graceful as she was right there,” he added.

Meanwhile, Assistant Public Defender Dalia Weintraub, Jennings’ attorney, asked the judge to impose no additional incarceration, noting that her client was now a different person.

Jennings, she said, obtained his GED diploma and was employed as a printing press operator at Maryland Correctional Enterprises. That’s in addition to becoming a certified braille transcriber and serving as a Bible fellowship worship leader.

Weintraub noted that the medical examiner’s office did not perform an autopsy and that Watson had tested positive for COVID-19 several days before his death.

Next, Jennings expressed his deepest condolences and stated that he was an ignorant 18-year-old at the time. “It sucks to have to be in this situation, your honor, because I was not raised this way,” he said. “My family invested a lot.”

Today, Jennings told the judge, he was not “the guy you see on paper.”

Stating that the most difficult part of his role is sentencing, Circuit Judge John Addison Howard later ordered Jennings to serve life with all time suspended but 20 years in prison — no additional incarceration.

“You obviously were not the same person who were at the age of 18 when you committed this act,” Howard said. “You pled guilty to this offense once before. And here today, you’re pleading guilty again to the same acts.”

“It is difficult, in reviewing those materials, and listening to you, to believe that it would be of any benefit to society as to its protection or punishment for you to increase the sentence.”

‘Everything happens for a reason’

Jennings said he plans to obtain his commercial driver’s license and continue to work on his art — he’s a tattoo artist — when he’s released from prison.

He said he felt that the judge heard him at sentencing. If he had received additional time, Jennings said, that would have made him think that the criminal justice system simply exists to warehouse people.

“People come to prison, not all, but people come to prison and change their lives,” Jennings said. “Normally, society has this preconceived notion that we’re in here just sitting in cells, doing time and doing nothing.”

“We have visions of greatness,” he added. “We know we were selling ourselves short by being involved in certain lifestyles that we now frown upon.”

More than three years later, Jennings said, he still feels the effects of being prosecuted for a second time. He described that period as the most stressful time of his life.

“As a man of God, I believe that everything happens for a reason,” Jennings said. “I just want to be able to move forward with my life.”

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