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Mentor of convicted child abuser recalls jailhouse visit

How exactly did Zjaire Williams die?

Darryl Powell, the 2-year-old boy's father, who was convicted of killing him and was sentenced this week to 20 years, isn't saying much, even to those closest to him.

This was made clear to me just outside the courtroom after sentencing, when a man named Russ Gordon agreed to talk. Gordon is the chief financial officer of a local construction company, and said he served as a volunteer mentor to Powell for years.

Gordon, 45, said he generally mentors about eight kids at a time. He acknowledged that some kids he has mentored in the past were capable of beating a 2-year-old, but not Powell, who he said at his core is a sweet person who loved his son.

"If he did do it, you would have to show me a videotape to convince me," he said.

Gordon relayed a conversation he had with Powell at the Montgomery County jail.

First some background about the allegations in the case, which have always been startling:

On Jan. 6, 2009, Powell asked the child's mother to bring Zjaire to his residence to spend the night. She did, arriving early the next morning. By 7:06 a.m., Zjaire was dead at Shady Grove Adventist Hospital. Not only was his liver torn nearly in two, but he had bruises all over his body and he had head injuries, according to prosecutors.

Last October, Powell pleaded guilty to first-degree child abuse resulting in death, in a deal with prosecutors to drop a murder charge. "We're never going to know what happened in those early morning hours," prosecutor Karla Smith said in court on Wednesday. "The only person who knows what happened is the defendant. What we do know is that Zjaire was brutally beaten."

Gordon, who has known Powell since Powell was in third grade, recalled his jailhouse conversation with him this way.

"Did you do it?"

"Mr. Gordon, I didn't do it."

"How did he die?"

"Mr. Gordon, I just don’t know what happened."

A reader who commented on my story about the sentencing wanted to know what a 20-year-sentence means in Maryland. Certainly a fair question. Under the way the state runs its prisons, if an inmate behaves and participates in programs that could help his rehabilitation, he can shave considerable time off his stay. For violent offenses, it can amount to half the sentence. Here is more on how "diminution credits” work.

By Dan Morse  |  January 29, 2010; 11:25 AM ET
Categories:  Dan Morse , Montgomery  
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