Jury will determine whether U.Md. killing was a hate crime

Lt. Richard Collins III was stabbed in May 2017, allegedly by Sean Urbanski. (AP)

As Sean Urbanski’s first-degree murder and hate crime trial — which began Monday — proceeds after four delays, no lawyers will question that he plunged a knife into the chest of U.S. Army Lt. Richard Collins III at the University of Maryland’s College Park campus in 2017.

The key questions jurors will consider are whether Urbanski, who is white, intended to murder Collins, who was black, and whether the motivation for the killing was Collins’ skin color.

As WTOP has reported, prosecutors Jonathon Church and Jason Abbott turned over to the defense surveillance video showing Urbanski stabbing Collins, who was waiting for an Uber after visiting friends on campus, on May 20, 2017.

Collins died days before his graduation from Bowie State University, and two days after being commissioned as a U.S. Army second lieutenant.

Urbanski was arrested on the scene minutes after the stabbing. Police recovered Urbanski’s knife with Collins’ blood on it.

In addition, Prince George’s County prosecutors have gathered 911 calls from eyewitnesses, who are expected to testify, and more than a dozen jail calls recorded while Urbanski was behind bars.

Surveillance video from several businesses along U.S. Route 1 — including Target, Terrapin’s Turf, Nando’s PeriPeri, Cornerstone Grill & Loft, and RJ Bentley’s Restaurant, as well as a 7-Eleven on Knox Road — were used to trace Urbanski’s and Collins’ movements before the stabbing.

But the most contentious evidence was found on Urbanski’s iPhone: racist memes, online group chats and social media, including Urbanski’s engagement with the now-deleted “Alt-Reich: Nation” Facebook group.

The defense argument that the material was “extremely prejudicial, highly inflammatory, irrelevant, and not otherwise admissible,” was rejected by Circuit Judge Lawrence Hill, who ruled jurors will be able to view the material.

Jury selection is expected to take two days but progressed slowly Monday morning, with potential jurors filling every seat in the courtroom. Hill said approximately 100 potential jurors would be brought in. The judge and lawyers will be privately questioning each potential witness, unlike in most cases.

During pretrial motions and hearings, there was no suggestion that Urbanski uttered racial slurs to Collins. According to charging documents, Urbanski said: “Step left, step left if you know what’s best for you.” Collins replied, “No,” seconds before being stabbed.

Prosecutors were dealt a blow last week when Hill ruled prosecutors cannot call an expert witness to explain the Alt-Reich white nationalist group to jurors. Hill’s ruling was partly because the prosecution announced their intention only 30 days before trial, after four previous delays.

In Urbanski’s first court appearance, defense attorney William Brennan told a judge: “Alcohol and substance abuse may have played a significant role in all of this.”

Brennan and co-counsel John McKenna have said blood alcohol testing determined Urbanski was severely drunk at the time, suggesting they may tell jurors that Urbanski’s intoxication hampered his ability to form the intent required for a first-degree murder conviction.

Jurors will also be able to consider second-degree murder or manslaughter charges. In addition, after evidence and testimony is complete, the defense can argue the jury should also be able to consider involuntary manslaughter.

Alternatively, jurors could deem Urbanski not guilty.

In Maryland, the maximum penalty for a first-degree murder conviction is life in prison with no chance of parole. The top sentence for the state charge of hate crime resulting in death is 20 years.

As WTOP first reported, the FBI did not find enough evidence to warrant federal hate crime charges against Urbanski, which could have qualified him for the death penalty.

In March, sources familiar with earlier plea negotiations told WTOP that prosecutors remained firm on the first-degree murder count, despite offers by Urbanski’s lawyers that he would plead guilty to second-degree murder.

On Monday, Collins’ parents and other relatives were seated near the back of the courtroom for jury selection. Urbanski’s parents were not present.

The trial is scheduled to last a week.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a general assignment reporter with WTOP since 1997. He says he looks forward to coming to work every day, even though that means waking up at 3:30 a.m.

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