20-Year-Old Acquitted of Attempted Murder of 2 Brothers

Baltimore Courthouse

After nearly two days of deliberation, a 12-person jury acquitted Baltimore resident James Phillips of the attempted murder of two brothers in November 2019.

Phillips, 20, was found guilty for firearm use in a violent crime, first-degree assault, reckless endangerment, having a hand gun on his person and discharging a firearm within the city of Baltimore.

Prior charges, including illegal possession of a firearm, minor in possession of a firearm, carrying a handgun 100 yards, discharging a gun in the city, and illegal possession of ammo were dismissed.

Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge M. Brooke Murdock presided over the four-day trial. Judge Jennifer Schiffer presided over the verdict on Aug. 18.

At the start of the trial on Aug. 12, the prosecution alleged that the attempted murder occurred shortly after 5 p.m. on Nov. 11, 2019, when two brothers, then ages 18 and 20, were outside Grocery Deli and Carryout on the 3400 block of Belair Road. The eldest brother then got into a heated argument with “a man in black” and apparent friend of the defendant.

Video surveillance from two outdoor cameras—viewing the entrance to the deli and the adjacent street, Brendan Avenue—and a third camera—showing the exit from inside the deli—showed the men at the scene, including both brothers, the man in black, and Phillips, who was seen wearing a peach-colored hoodie under a black coat.

As the argument progressed, the prosecutor said, the younger brother, now age 20, went to check on his older brother who was outside of the deli and was told by him to get away from the area. What proceeded was the firing of two gunshots, wounding both brothers in their left arms.

“You heard no testimony of an accidental misfire,” the prosecutor said on Aug. 16 during closing arguments. “What you heard was [the younger brother] saw [the older brother] arguing with the defendant and pop pop.”

Video surveillance and photo stills from the footage were entered into evidence; however, defense attorney Jonathan Kerr said no cameras captured the actual shooting due to a blindspot.

The prosecutor also played excerpts from some of Phillips’ jail calls between December 2019 and August 2020 for the jury when the defendant is heard saying the only reason he was caught was because people were “ratting.” The person Phillips called also referred to him by his nickname, Monty, which detectives later testified was true.

“He knew he didn’t want to get caught,” the prosecutor said. “He knew he didn’t want to be on camera.”

As seen in the video surveillance from one of the deli’s cameras, several people are seen running away after shots were fired, “fearing they might be shot next,” she said. “But, you don’t see Mr. Phillips running away because he was the one who fired the gun.”

Using video footage from the surveillance camera from Brendan Avenue, the prosecutor then showed the jury that Phillips is seen leaving the scene jogging and then walking, keeping one arm down to his side. The lead detective, who was the first to arrive at the crime scene, testified that this behavior is synonymous with someone trying to conceal a weapon.

Kerr’s closing argument consisted of an analogy, describing the case as a jigsaw puzzle with puzzle pieces representing the prosecution’s evidence.

“If all of the pieces fit together, you get a picture,” Kerr said. “But what happens if pieces of the puzzle go missing? The more pieces that go missing, the less of a picture there is [and] there are pieces missing everywhere.”

During the course of the trial, the lead detective testified that he found the older brother’s blood outside and inside the deli’s entrance as well as two .45 caliber shell casings, one on the ground and another in the storefront’s wall.

Kerr questioned the lead detective on the second day of the trial after the latter confirmed that there were possibly 15 to 20 people in the area at the time of the shooting. The defense attorney noted that neither the detective nor other law enforcement were instructed to conduct interviews with any of these potential witnesses.

Last week, the lead detective testified that he spoke with both victims, including the younger brother who was found by a medic roughly a block away from the scene. The younger brother was interviewed at the hospital later that night and, again, three days later at a Baltimore Police station.

Neither brother directly identified the shooter.

The lead detective said he did speak with the clerk working at the deli, but he had no notes of the interview and later learned that the clerk had no information except that the older brother ran inside the store after he was shot.

The lead detective said he identified someone as a person of interest from a photo still from the video surveillance footage after sending it around the police department and hearing from another detective who frequently patrols the area.

The detective who identified Phillips as the person of interest testified on Monday that he is part of the police department’s District Action Team and assigned to patrol between the 2500 block and 4200 block of Belair Road. He said he commonly patrols the 3200 block through the 3600 block on foot for at least an hour five days a week—the same area where shooting occurred.

On the video recordings of both interviews, the younger brother tells the lead detective that the shooter was wearing a red or peach-colored hoodie—a statement he retracted during his testimony on Aug. 13.

The prosecution played video footage of the interview between the lead detective and younger brother at the hospital, where the latter first mentioned the defendant’s attire: a red or peach-colored hoodie. When the prosecutor asked him about his response, the younger brother said he didn’t remember saying that information and “if I did, I was under medication. I was high,” referring to the treatment he received while at the hospital.

On Nov. 14, 2019, the lead detective testified, he interviewed the younger brother once again at the police station and, prior to the interview, asked him whether he was on any medication that would cloud his judgement. Footage of the interview shows the younger brother saying he had taken ibuprofen but that he was of sound mind.

However, nearly two years after the shooting, the younger brother testified that he was under the influence during the interview at the police station, specifically taking oxycodone that he was prescribed after being discharged from the hospital.

During cross-examination, Kerr asked whether the younger brother was truthfully answering the prosecution’s questions, to which he said, “Yes.”

Kerr also argued that no photo array was conducted at the police station. Instead, the lead detective showed Phillips video surveillance from the night of the shooting and proceeded to describe what was happening as the footage played.

While the lead detective confirmed during his testimony that no photo array was conducted, the younger brother said he felt detectives were “pressuring me” to identify Phillips as the shooter and that “I just wanted to answer questions and get out of there.”

The detectives didn’t conduct a photo array, the prosecution argued, because the younger brother “said he wouldn’t be able to identify the suspect by face.” 

The testimony of a forensic scientist and Baltimore Police firearm analyst on Monday also confirmed Kerr’s prior accusations that no request was submitted for DNA analysis on the .45 caliber shell casing, despite it being possible to retrieve DNA from shell casings.

Editor’s note: The article has been corrected to state that James Phillips was found not guilty for attempted murder and guilty for first-degree assault, use of firearm in a violent crime, reckless endangerment, having a handgun on his person and discharging a firearm.