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Emotions rule during arraignment

Families of suspect, slaying victim meet

David Johnson (left), seen with lawyer Elliot Levine, pleaded not guilty to five counts related to his alleged role in the October 2007 killing of Steven Odom, an eighth-grader who played the drums at his father’s church and wrote about ending street violence. David Johnson (left), seen with lawyer Elliot Levine, pleaded not guilty to five counts related to his alleged role in the October 2007 killing of Steven Odom, an eighth-grader who played the drums at his father’s church and wrote about ending street violence. (George Rizer/Globe Staff)
By Maria Cramer
Globe Staff / April 7, 2009
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At first, the teenager hung back, out of view. He could not bear to face the grieving family.

When he finally stood in the courtroom, he squared his shoulders, jutted out his chin, and stared straight ahead at the clerk-magistrate. And then, slowly, 18-year-old David Johnson began to crumble.

As a prosecutor described yesterday how he allegedly provided the gun used to kill 13-year-old Steven Odom, Johnson started to weep.

He looked over to the boy's family in the Suffolk Superior Court hearing room and mouthed, "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry for you."

Johnson pleaded not guilty to five counts related to his alleged role in the October 2007 killing of Steven, an eighth-grader who played the drums at his father's church and wrote about ending street violence.

Steven was killed when 18-year-old Charles Bunch fired five to six shots into a group on Evans Street in Dorchester that included the boy, prosecutors said. Bunch, a gang associate of Johnson's, allegedly mistook one of the people in the group as a gang rival, Assistant District Attorney Patrick Haggan said yesterday. Bunch was killed 10 days later in an apparently unrelated, unsolved homicide, police said.

Yesterday, Johnson was ordered held on $500,000 cash bail during an emotional hearing that brought together in one room two families torn apart in different ways by the same crime.

Johnson's supporters, including his father and girlfriend, sat in the front row of the courtroom, just a few feet from more than a dozen relatives and friends of Steven Odom.

Ronald Odom Sr., Steven's father, had to be escorted out, overcome by grief. Steven's mother, Kim, who wore a purple scarf covered with peace signs, followed him.

After the arraignment, 25-year-old Ronald Odom Jr. approached Johnson's father, a frail-looking man in a dark suit. He put his arm around the defendant's father and gently walked him out of the courtroom, saying, "We want to help you."

Minutes later, Johnson's father, identified in court papers as Robert Phillips, met with Steven's parents in another room in the courthouse, said the Rev. William E. Dickerson II, a family friend who was at the arraignment. During the meeting, Odom Sr. shook Phillips's hand and hugged him, Dickerson said.

The Odoms "recognize either they're going to forgive and let it go or become angry and bitter. And they refuse to do that," Dickerson said. "They believe they can reach young people through this unfortunate ordeal, not just young people but other people as it relates to the violence in our inner city."

The Odoms have said they want to meet with the families of Johnson and Bunch. Bunch's mother, Candace, who was not at the arraignment, said yesterday that if she meets with the Odoms she will do so privately.

Yesterday, in a telephone interview, she said her son was innocent.

"He didn't do anything," Bunch said. "He can't even speak for himself. I'm truly sorry for the loss of two great lives. . . . Two great lives have been lost."

The tension leading up to Johnson's arraignment was palpable. As lawyers for both sides waited for Johnson to be brought into the courtroom, a young woman sitting with Johnson's supporters began to cry.

"I'm going to have an anxiety attack," she said, breathing quickly, her hands shaking.

Haggan approached the Odoms and told them that Johnson did not want to come out.

"It's OK," Ronald Odom Jr. whispered back. "Don't force him to do anything."

Eventually, Johnson sat on a bench behind a screen that shielded him from the view of spectators. A court official asked him to enter a plea to each of the charges.

"Not guilty, sir," responded Johnson in a shaky voice, which grew more strained with each plea. A court officer gave him a trash can when it appeared he might be sick. Johnson crossed himself as he tried to regain his composure.

Eventually he stood, listening quietly to Haggan, who said Bunch allegedly asked for the gun so he could "handle" a rival. Johnson allegedly fished the gun from under his mattress and gave it to Bunch, Haggan said. After the killing, Bunch allegedly drove back to Johnson's house to return the still-warm Colt Python .357 revolver, Haggan said.

In later interviews with police, the prosecutor said, Johnson allegedly admitted his role and said Bunch told him Steven was an "unintended casualty in the drama."

" 'Whoever we see first, that's who we're going to get,' " Johnson allegedly said in one of his statements, Haggan said.

Johnson's lawyer, Elliot Levine, said his client did not make "any kind of hard statement like that."

As Johnson's shoulders shook with sobs, Levine told the court that his client feels terrible for the Odoms.

Levine said Johnson told him: "I have a heart. I have feelings. I can't live with what has happened. I want the Odom family to know that."

Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com.