Judge throws out hate-crime charge in U.Md. murder trial

Lt. Richard Collins III, and Sean Urbanski
FILE – This combination of photos provided by the U.S. Army and the University of Maryland Police Department shows Richard Collins III, right, and Sean Urbanski. (U.S. Army, University of Maryland Police Department via AP, File)

A judge has thrown out the hate-crime charge in the murder trial of Sean Urbanski, who is charged with fatally stabbing a black university student in May 2017.

Prince George’s County Circuit Court Judge Lawrence Hill said Tuesday that prosecutors had failed to show 24-year-old Urbanski, who is white, stabbed U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Richard Collins III specifically because Collins was black.

Jurors will still consider a first-degree murder charge against Urbanski.

Collins’ parents, Dawn and Richard Collins, who had released an emotional statement at the start of the trial last week, left the Upper Marlboro courtroom shortly after the judge’s ruling, visibly upset.

FILE — Richard Collins III, 23, was a Bowie State University student who was about to graduate and was just commissioned in May 2017 to join the Army as second lieutenant. (WTOP/Michelle Basch)

Their son was days away from graduating from Bowie State University and had just been commissioned as an Army officer when he was stabbed waiting at a bus stop on the University of Maryland’s College Park campus.

During opening statements in the trial last week, prosecutors had argued Urbanski’s mind was “poisoned” by hate, pointing to racist memes found on his phone and his membership in a Facebook group called “Alt-Reich: Nation,” which also circulated racist images.

Urbanski stabbed Collins “for no reason other than he was black,” Prince George’s County prosecutor Jason Abbott said.

However, in his ruling Tuesday, several days into the trial, the judge ruled that prosecutors had failed to meet the burden for the jury to consider the hate-crime charge.

Though Urbanski had racist memes on his phone, prosecutors hadn’t presented any evidence or testimony that he had uttered any racist comments or that he had ever advocated violence against anyone, the judge said.

The fact that Urbanski had racist memes on his phone “shows some evidence of the defendant’s ideology,” the judge said, but he ruled that prosecutors hadn’t shown it was actually the motive for Collins’ killing.

The judge’s decision came after one of Urbanski’s defense attorneys, John McKenna, requested what’s known as a summary acquittal on the hate-crime charge.

Urbanski’s defense team don’t deny that Urbanski stabbed Collins — the attack was partly captured on surveillance video — but they argue there’s no evidence the stabbing was motivated by hate.

Instead, defense attorneys contend Urbanski was drunk and angry that night, perhaps about not graduating on time with his classmates that spring. At the time of the stabbing, Urbanski’s blood alcohol content was more than three times the legal limit, according to a defense expert.

“There’s simply no evidence of a race-based motive, and a lot of evidence of alcohol as a motive,” McKenna argued Tuesday.

The defense rested its case Tuesday.

Closing arguments in the trial are expected Wednesday.

The judge’s decision to dismiss the charge of hate crime resulting in death came outside the earshot of the jury.

Jurors will only learn of the judge’s decision when they are formally given jury instructions before they begin deliberations. In those instructions, the judge will tell jurors not to discuss the dismissed hate-crime charge or to discuss why the charge was dismissed.

The judge also ruled that jurors will only be allowed to consider a verdict of first-degree murder, second-degree murder or acquittal. Hill said the evidence presented during the trial does not support allowing the jury to consider voluntary or involuntary as requested by the defense.

Prosecutors are seeking a sentence of life without the possibility of parole if Urbanski is convicted of first-degree murder. The maximum prison sentence for a second-degree murder conviction would be 30 years.

Defense: Urbanski was ‘out of it’ drunk

The judge’s decision to throw out the hate-crime charge came in the second week of Urbanski’s trial and after the defense had finished presenting its case.

The first witness for the defense said Urbanski was angry and very drunk, long before first setting eyes on Lt. Collins.

Akshay Lingayat, who described himself as an acquaintance, testified that he saw Urbanski walk out of the Terrapin’s Turf restaurant and bar, and punch a light pole. He characterized Urbanski as “completely out of it.”

Defense attorneys also showed jurors video of Urbanski from the holding cell taken at 4:15 a.m. and 4:57 a.m. on May 20, 2017 — less than two hours after he stabbed Collins.

In the video, Urbanksi — who is dressed in shorts, black socks and T-shirt — slurs his speech, repeatedly calls for a guard to let him use the restroom and sings out loud.

Dr. Nicholas Lappas, who testified as an expert witness on forensic toxicology for the defense, said Urbanski’s blood alcohol was tested at 11 a.m. — more than eight hours after the murder — and found to be 0.1. Maryland’s legal limit for alcohol is 0.08%.  Based on the number of hours since Urbanski’s last drink, Lappas estimated Urbanski’s BAC was more than three times the legal limit at the time he stabbed Collins.

Urbanski’s defense attorneys claim he was too drunk to have the intent or premeditation necessary to support a first-degree murder conviction.

Urbanski did not take the stand in his own defense.

Prosecutors: Open knife proves premeditation

Prosecutors wrapped up their case Monday.

Among the evidence they showed jurors were racist memes recovered from Urbanski’s phone, including one titled “N—– in a woodchipper.”

Amanda Lee, one of the University of Maryland students who was standing with Collins at the bus stop before he was stabbed, also testified for the prosecution.

It was a little after 3 a.m. on a Saturday when Urbanski approached Collins, Lee and another University of Maryland student, Blake Bender, who were all waiting at the bus stop. Urbanski watched them for more than 10 minutes before he briefly left and then returned.

Lee said Urbanski held an unfolded knife in his hands as he approached the group and then stabbed Collins.

In opening statements, prosecutors argued opening a knife before walking toward Collins provided the premeditation needed for a first-degree murder conviction.

Also testifying for prosecutors, a former co-worker at a bowling alley testified both men were members of the “Alt-Reich: Nation” Facebook group that shared racist memes.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

Jack Moore

Jack Moore joined WTOP.com as a digital writer/editor in July 2016. Previous to his current role, he covered federal government management and technology as the news editor at Nextgov.com, part of Government Executive Media Group.

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