Saying he could not begin to imagine the terror that students and teachers felt walking out of their school last spring as gunfire erupted, a Baltimore County judge sentenced an 18-year-old former Randallstown High School student yesterday to 100 years in prison for his role in the shootings that left one student partially paralyzed and three others wounded.
Baltimore County Circuit Judge Patrick Cavanaugh went far beyond state sentencing guidelines in setting Matthew Timothy McCullough's punishment for a crime that left the community shaken and parents wondering whether their children were as safe as they had thought they were in a county school. Witnesses testified at trial that McCullough was one of two people who fired into a crowd on the parking lot and the steps of the school as a charity basketball game was letting out May 7.
"You, Mr. McCullough, are ... a suburban terrorist," the judge said. "You're also a coward if you started all this over someone calling you a name."
He added that he had seen no reaction from McCullough as the victims' families spoke yesterday in court and no sign of remorse from the teenager - who told a parole and probation officer Jan. 12 that he "beat the attempted-murder rap," that the witnesses who testified at his trial had lied and that he "shouldn't even be in jail for this."
"It appears to me," Cavanaugh told the defendant, "that you have no conscience at all."
State sentencing guidelines recommended a prison term of five to 10 years for each of the four assault charges on which a Baltimore County jury convicted McCullough in November. Sentenced yesterday to four consecutive 25-year terms - the maximum allowed by state law for four counts of first-degree assault - McCullough must serve 50 years in prison before he will become eligible for a parole hearing.
Attorneys interviewed about the case characterized the 100-year sentence as unusual but perhaps befitting a crime that affected not only the four students struck by bullets.
"Obviously, this case was different because it literally shocked a suburban community and put fear in the hearts of many a parent," said Joseph Murtha, a former prosecutor and current criminal defense lawyer.
In brief remarks in court, McCullough characterized the events of May 7 as "a tragedy" and apologized for "what happened that day." Having told the judge that he was ready to accept his punishment, McCullough showed no emotion as Cavanaugh announced the sentence at the end of an emotional, nearly 3 1/2 -hour hearing in Baltimore County Circuit Court in Towson.
Defense attorney Timothy M. Dixon said he was disappointed with the sentence and that he believes there was "clear evidence" at trial that McCullough was not one of the two shooters. Dixon said he will file an appeal.
Fannie McCullough, the defendant's mother, who sat through much of her son's trial with a well-worn Bible in her lap, repeatedly reminded her friends and family throughout yesterday's hearing that Cavanaugh would not be the final judge of her youngest boy.
"You know God's still in control," she told one relative on their way out of the courtroom.
Students and staff members from Randallstown testified during a six-day trial in November that a dispute had been simmering between McCullough and a football player in the days before the shootings. Told by school administrators to stay home for a "cool-down day," McCullough returned to school twice May 7, witnesses said - once with his brother and a group of unarmed friends and later with three different friends who brought a 9 mm semiautomatic handgun.
When a fistfight on the parking lot turned into a brawl that McCullough and his friends were losing, a heavyset man pulled a gun. The man fired several rounds before handing the weapon to McCullough, who then began shooting, witnesses testified. Police testified that McCullough emptied the gun of its remaining bullets into the fleeing crowd.
Tyrone Devon Brown, 24, admitted in September that he was that first shooter and pleaded guilty to attempted second-degree murder and a handgun charge. Cavanaugh sentenced him to 50 years in prison.
McCullough was acquitted in November of attempted second-degree murder charges and handgun charges but found guilty of assault.
Prosecutors dropped attempted-murder charges this month against a third man, Antonio Richard Jackson, 21, accused of taking to Randallstown High the gun used in the shootings. Unable to locate a witness they have been seeking since November, and whom they describe as essential to their case, prosecutors made clear that they intend to refile the charges whenever detectives track down that witness, Ronald Patrick Johnson Jr., 20, of Owings Mills.
Prosecutor Stephen Bailey told the judge yesterday that when it comes to sentencing, it doesn't matter that police could not say whether the shots McCullough fired hit anyone. (At trial, a police detective testified that at least three of the four injured students were likely shot by Brown.)
"At sentencing," Bailey said, "you decide who is morally blameworthy."
The most seriously injured of the four students who were shot also did not draw any distinction. Turning his wheelchair toward McCullough, William "Tippa" Thomas III unzipped his leather jacket and lifted his shirt to display scars left by bullets that pierced his neck, back and lung, and left him without any feeling from the waist down.
"I want to show you what you did to me, man," Thomas told his former classmate. "This is what I'll look like for the rest of my life."
Thomas, a wide receiver for the Randallstown High School Rams who had intended to play football at Morgan State University, wiped away tears when his older sister recounted for the judge a trip to a Ravens football game with Thomas after the shootings.
"He looked at me and said, 'Shell, I want to play football so bad,'" LaShell Bloodworth told the court. Turning to McCullough, she added, "I hope you rot in hell for what you did. I hope you rot in hell."
Also shot at Randallstown were Alexander Brown, Marcus McLain and Andre Mellerson. Although some of their family members attended the sentencing hearing, none of them did.
Given his chance to address the judge, Dixon, the defense attorney, read from letters written by 12 friends and relatives of the McCullough family and called 15 others to address the judge.
Characterizing McCullough as a polite, respectful and churchgoing young man, many described the painful change in McCullough's life after his father died of kidney disease in 2003.
"Matt lost his golden times with his father. He was lost," Sharon Solice said in court. "I need you, Judge, Your Honor, to find him."