The night before his best friend’s trial, Maurtice Brown tried to go to bed early. By 2 a.m., he was awake and gave up trying to sleep.
Around noon on Jan. 29, he and his mother and his sister left their house in Glen Burnie for the courthouse in Annapolis.They expected to testify at a trial for Connor Stagno, a boy the family knew well but had not seen or talked to since April 1, the day he shot Maurtice in the face.
At the time of the shooting, Maurtice was 17 and Connor was 15. They were in the basement of Maurtice’s house, hanging out with another friend, Jit. They smoked some weed and passed around a gun Jit had assembled.
It was Maurtice who asked Jit to bring the gun along with them that day they went to the mall. They tried to steal sunglasses; a store employee caught wind of what they were doing, so the boys ran. They ended up far from home, but found a ride home from another, older friend.
That was about the last memory Maurtice had of that night, gaining consciousness days later at the hospital with a terrible injury to the left side of his face and a bullet still lodged in his brain.
Why did Connor shoot Maurtice? The question haunted Maurtice, and haunted his mother Margaret Neal even more. They went to the courthouse last week looking for an answer.
Seeking answers in court
The basic facts were not in dispute. Connor fired the gun that injured Maurtice. Connor and Jit claimed it was an accident but didn’t explain the events that led up to the discharge, or exactly how it happened, or why he pulled the trigger.
The only clue, Neal said, was something her granddaughter said she overheard from the basement shortly before the gun went off.
“Get that gun out of my face,” her granddaughter, who is 12, heard someone say, according to Neal.
Whatever else happened, or was said, only Connor and Jit would know. The trial, Maurtice and his family hoped, would reveal those details.
Juvenile proceedings are held on the lower level of the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County. Connor’s trial was a bench trial, presided over by a magistrate, John F. Gunning. Connor, dressed in a black suit, black oxfords and dark blue dress shirt, sat on a bench waiting for his trial to begin with his attorney, Jit, his grandmother, and his grandmother’s longtime partner whom Connor considers his step-grandfather.
Maurtice’s mother and sister sat nearby, across the corridor. No one looked at one another. Rather than sit with his family, Maurtice waited alone on the other side of the lobby, near the elevators. He wore a dark jeans, hoodie and sneakers. Like Connor, he was chewing gum.
He had imagined being in the courthouse with Connor and Jit before. One of these days, he thought, they’d be arrested for shoplifting and would end up here.
“I never thought we would be here for this,” he said.
Maurtice was told he didn’t have to testify or attend the trial, which he had been reluctant to do.
“I’m a nervous kind of person anyway,” he said. “I didn’t really want to go in there.”
He and his family sat in the very back row of the courtroom, two rows behind Connor’s family. Maurtice sat low in his seat with his eyes half closed, while his mother and sister sat closer to the edge of the bench.
The responding officer testified as did the lead detective on the case. So did Maurtice’s sister Brittany Neal, who was at home with her five children when the shooting occurred. A recording of the 911 call was played in court, in which you could hear Brittany, in agony, crying “he can’t go, he can’t go.” Connor can also be heard pleading with the dispatcher to “please hurry up, please hurry up.”
Connor declined to testify. Jit was not asked to, although statements he made during the investigation were used in the trial.
What Maurtice and his family most wanted to hear, maybe the only thing they cared to hear at the trial, was Connor’s testimony. They hoped the court would compel him to finally explain everything.
The testimony and arguments by the two attorneys lasted less than two hours. The magistrate told everyone he would render a verdict in exactly one week. He indicated he was already convinced that Connor’s actions did not constitute attempted murder.
“Where’s your integrity if this was really an accident?” Margaret Neal said in the lobby of the courtroom after the hearing ended, with Brittany nodding in agreement. “Where’s your integrity to say to your friend in the courtroom in front of the judge, ‘Man I did this, but I’m sorry.’ I would want to apologize in front of my family, his family, as well as the judge.”
“If you’re a kid that’s been coming into my home, staying the night, acting like you’re almost like family … yeah, it matters to me.”
If Maurtice was frustrated, he hid it. He either believed the shooting was an accident or dearly wanted to believe it was an accident.
“I leave everything to God and Jesus,” he said.
Delivering the verdict
Exactly one week later, Margaret Neal was back at the courthouse for the reading of the magistrate’s verdict. Brittany wanted to come but couldn’t find anyone to watch her kids. Maurtice decided to stay home.
“Don’t you want to know what happens?” she had asked Maurtice.
“You can tell me,” he said to her.
On Monday afternoon, Gunning announced he found Connor guilty of first-degree assault. He also said he did not believe Connor intended to harm his friend.
Before announcing his sentence, he offered Margaret Neal the opportunity to speak. She remained in her seat in the back row and began to cry as she spoke of how her son will never be the same, how he has isolated himself, thinks he is disfigured and ugly, and expresses thoughts of killing himself.
Connor was also offered a chance to speak. He turned around toward Neal but did not make direct eye contact. He explained why he lied to police at first when he told them Maurtice shot himself. “I didn’t know if he would make it, and I was scared I would go to jail for a very long time.”
“I’m really sorry, I really am,” he continued. “I always loved Maurtice. We had a bond that would not break. It was unconditional love. We were foolish, and I’m very sorry.”
Connor’s step-grandfather also turned around to apologize to Neal, the first words between them since the shooting.
The magistrate sentenced Connor to probation. He declined the prosecutor’s request that Connor have no contact with Maurtice, wanting to leave open the possibility for the two boys to someday speak to each other.
“Basically, he just walked,” Neal said.
Connor’s step-grandfather, spotting Neal outside the courtroom repeated his apology. He offered her a hug. She received it.
Neal’s disappointment was unmitigated. The trial yielded only a legal answer, not the one Neal is still looking for. The verdict did not feel like resolution for her. Anything but.
Neal is still worried about her son. She talked about feeling helpless as a parent against the forces around her son, the fear and violence that builds more fear and violence, the peer pressure, the culture of guns, the video games, and social media, and rap videos.
“It doesn’t matter where I move,” she said, “unless I move out of the country.”
She didn’t know what to wish for Maurtice and Connor.
“Maurtice really wants to believe it was an accident,” she said. “He wants his friends back.”
She turned to walk out of the courthouse, go home, and deliver the verdict to her son.