Sean Urbanski, who stabbed Lt. Richard Collins III to death in 2017 at a bus stop on the University of Maryland’s College Park campus, was sentenced to life in prison in an online hearing Thursday.
Judge Lawrence Hill left open the possibility of parole, and said he would recommend Urbanski, 25, be incarcerated at the Patuxent Institution, which specializes in young offenders.
Urbanski would be eligible for parole after 15 years. If Parole Board recommends it, the governor would have to approve parole, according to prosecutor Jason Abbott, in a post-sentence news conference.
The ruling capped a hearing which turned on whether Urbanski’s killing of Collins in the predawn hours of May 20, 2017, was motivated by racial hatred or whether he was simply drunk.
The prosecution had asked for life in prison without the possibility of parole; the defense, that the chance to eventually be released be left open.
Hill split the difference: “I don’t believe that this case is, frankly, everything that either side has made it out to be,” the judge said.
He picked up on a point made by Urbanski’s mother, Elizabeth Urbanski, that in high school, Urbanski was an unsuccessful basketball player, despite being the biggest student in his class, because he wasn’t aggressive enough. The defense had also pointed out that Sean Urbanski had no previous criminal record or discipline problems in prison, and that the investigation of the murder hadn’t come up with any evidence of racist words or actions in his past.
That said, Hill, who pointed out that he and the prosecutors are Black, while Urbanski’s defense lawyers are white, said, “Race is always around us, whether we talk about it or not.”
Urbanski had racist memes on his phone and was part of an alt-right Facebook group. And Collins was one of three people at the bus stop where he was killed, but the only Black person — and the only one Urbanski attacked.
“Alcohol did not cause Mr. Urbanski to murder Lt. Collins,” Hill said in passing sentence. “It was a factor, but … alcohol does not cause someone to do something that is not within themselves.”
The defense said Urbanski’s blood-alcohol level was reportedly about three times the legal limit.
For his part, Urbanski, who had not spoken during the trial, told the judge, “I accept whatever sentence you decide is acceptable.”
Hill said Collins’ life was “unimpeachable” and that he “lived to the highest standards in whatever he did.”
“He was what all of us should be,” the judge added.
Urbanski was convicted of first-degree murder in December 2019.
‘Struck with fear’
Her voice breaking, mother Dawn Collins testified, “When I found out I was having a boy, I was instantly struck with fear. A Black man in America — oh my God.”
Her parents assured her “he would be fine,” she said, but added, “My son’s greatest crime was that he said no to a white man.”
Prosecutor Jason Abbott said Urbanski “selected the Black man” at the bus stop. “He came there to stab 1st Lt. Collins,” Abbott said, and while it was true that Collins said “No” when Urbanski told him to step aside, “It wouldn’t have mattered” what Collins said; “he was getting stabbed.”
(Richard Collins III was a second lieutenant when he was killed; he was posthumously promoted to first lieutenant.)
Abbott added that the nature of Urbanski’s crime meant that a prison term and rehabilitation wouldn’t work — “You cannot trust him once he gets out of prison.”
Urbanski was “a member of a Facebook group that paid homage to Adolf Hitler,” and had “poisoned his mind,” Abbott said. ” … There’s no cure, no rehabilitation for that.”
Collins’ father, Richard Collins Jr., recalled how his own father, Richard Collins Sr., was killed in 1954 by a white man who thought the elder Collins was peeking into his window. The man was not prosecuted.
“He survived fighting in the Korean War only to be shot dead a few months after his honorable discharge while walking the streets of his hometown,” said Richard Collins Jr.
He called the murder an “act of pure evil,” and that his 23-year-old son was “taken from us before the glow of his light could brighten a darkened world.”
Both parents said they were awakened at 3 a.m., about the time of Collins’ murder, and still do every day, and that they haven’t cleaned out their son’s room yet.
Dawn Collins said she visits the bus stop where her son was killed. “I often just sit on that bench and look to the heavens and ask, ‘God, why?’”
The defense’s case
Elizabeth and Sean Urbanski each began their statements by apologizing to the Collins family, and acknowledging that their words aren’t “anywhere near enough,” the mother said.
Elizabeth Urbanski said her son was “a really good kid” in his youth, and as a young man had lots of friends and a civil-rights lawyer for a grandfather, and made a point of spending more time publicly hanging out with a gay friend in high school when the friend was being bullied.
He was majoring in kinesiology at Maryland and wanted to work with prosthetics ever since he saw soldiers returning from combat with missing limbs, she said.
“But then, there are the memes,” she said, adding that she had called her son a “thoughtless and immature jerk” for looking at offensive memes, including racist ones. “How stupid for him not to think that the memes are poisonous and hurtful.”
“I know Sean has to serve time for what he’s done,” his mother concluded; “he should.”
She added, however, “I hope that you have the trust and faith that Sean should be able to reenter the world and do good at some point in time.”
In addition to pronouncing himself willing to accept any sentence, Sean Urbanski called the murder a “drunken, senseless action” and said to the Collins family, “If I could switch places with your son, I would do it in a heartbeat.”
Defense lawyer John McKenna repeated the contention that Urbanski’s intoxication was the driving factor.
“Sean Urbanski can’t remember what he did,” McKenna said. “He couldn’t tell the police or the jury why he did it. … He was too drunk.”
McKenna said Urbanski’s estimated blood alcohol level was .20 to .26, and that police had to show him the video of him killing Richard Collins III for him to realize what he had done.
“It’s the reason, as unsatisfactory as that is. … He got blind drunk and he did this horrible thing. … And he knows he’s going to have to pay for it,” McKenna said.
The lawyer added that “shutting the door” and saying someone of Urbanski’s age (he was 22 at the time of the killing) can’t be rehabilitated “shouldn’t be true of any young person.”
McKenna said Urbanski has had no discipline problems in more than three and a half years in prison, is going to therapy and “is a model prisoner.”
“He can be redeemed,” McKenna said, pointing out that Urbanski had never said he didn’t do it, and that the defense asked he be charged with second-degree murder, which carries a maximum sentence of 40 years. “There was no time Sean Urbanski said, ‘Let’s find a way out of this.'”
Though there was no getting around the “terrible, insensitive, racist, moronic” memes on Urbanski’s phone, McKenna said, no evidence has been produced that he ever advocated for violence against anyone.
‘Still in disbelief’
Richard Collins III had just been commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army and was a few days away from graduating from Bowie State University when Urbanski stabbed him to death.
The hearing opened with two videos of Collins — one from his ROTC graduation two days before he was killed, in which he told the audience that he wouldn’t be a stranger to Bowie State; the other of photos from Collins’ life, set to the song “Beautiful,” by Mali Music.
Prosecutor Jonathon Church called Collins’ murder “senseless and born out of hate.”
There followed statements from Collins’ family and those who knew him well.
Alphonso Hawkins, a friend of the family, read a statement from Collins’ sister, Robin, in which she said she was “still in disbelief” that her brother was gone. “Almost four years later,” she added, “I’m still trying to figure out how to navigate the world without my brother,” whom she called “one of those once-in-a-lifetime people.”
For his own part, Hawkins said Collins was a “noble, respected and model citizen,” and that Collins’ parents and sister were “devastated,” suffering sleepless nights, headaches, loss of appetite and crying.
Hawkins added that they were frustrated by the dropping of a hate crime charge against Urbanski, and noting that the trial didn’t begin until about two years after the murder, he called it a “long and arduous process for the Collins family.”
Derek Matthews said Collins was the best friend of his son, who attended the ROTC program as well. He said his son and Collins went to visit the university once a week, although he wasn’t there on the night of Collins’ murder. “My son is still, now, dealing with survivor’s guilt,” Matthews said.
He added that he was a retired law enforcement official, and asked the court to “do what we know is the just thing.” He also asked for a maximum sentence.
University of Maryland professor Dr. Rashawn Ray said that, before the pandemic forced him off campus, he passed the bus stop every day. He said the university “was torn apart by this incident.”
Several speakers had to be reminded by the judge to limit their remarks to the Collins case after they connected it to the larger picture of race relations in the U.S.
Jimmie Brunson, a cousin of Collins, said he had been seeking treatment at a VA hospital over the trauma he had suffered. He was removed from the hearing after the third time he requested the judge apply the death penalty, which Maryland doesn’t have; it’s also not allowed for such witnesses to suggest specific penalties.
Allen Taylor, another cousin of Collins, called him “a heroic and patriotic son,” and called the family, which he said numbers over 500, “absolutely devastated.”
“Every time I see a person in military uniform, I’m heartbroken and sad and angry,” Taylor added.
He compared Collins to Colin Powell and John McCain, and said he had overcome the many obstacles faced by young Black men. “That’s why the pain is so powerful; that’s why the pain is so sharp.”
The role of race
The memes found on Urbanski’s phone included one that referenced “pushing a n— into a woodchipper.” Urbanski downloaded that on Christmas Day 2016. During the trial, prosecutors called the contents of Urbanski’s phone “a true window” on his thoughts.
Even so, Hill threw out state hate-crime charges against Urbanski in 2019. In response, Collins’ parents and Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Aisha Braveboy advocated for a wider-reaching hate crimes law named for Collins, which went into effect last October. On Thursday, Hill said his decision had been misinterpreted — that it was a decision based on how the law was worded at the time, not his own feelings.
One of the students with Collins at the time said Urbanski watched them for about 10 minutes and returned holding an open folding knife. Prosecutors argued that that constituted premeditation.
WTOP’s Neal Augenstein and Jack Moore contributed to this report.