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Oscar Veal told them about the first victim. How he approached his unsuspecting target in broad daylight, at the corner of H and Sixth streets in Northwest Washington. And how he simply walked up to the man, closed his eyes, and pulled the trigger. “I could taste the gunpowder in my mouth,” Veal told a silent courtroom last week, barely taking a breath as he detailed what he called the longest three minutes of his life. When it was over, he sprinted to the getaway car, where his driver, gang leader Rodney Moore, awaited his return. From that day forward there seemed to be no way out, Veal said. There would be six more murders, contract killings for the deadly drug gang Murder Inc. Veal faced life in prison for his role as hit man for the notorious gang, which peddled heroin and cocaine on the District’s streets throughout the 1990s and earned its name by its escalating body count. And that’s exactly what some of the families of his victims said he deserved. “I will pray until my dying breath that you never see the streets again,” said Carol Watkins, whose son Anthony was shot and killed by Veal on Aug. 9, 1999. “If you were really sorry for what you did, Oscar, you would ask the judge never to set you free.” Veal, seated at the defense table, bowed his head and cried. But despite the string of killings, Veal was before the court asking for mercy. And he wasn’t alone. His strongest advocates were federal prosecutors, who pleaded with the judge to give Veal a much lighter penalty. Veal had turned. He had proved to be the government’s most valuable witness in its long-running case against Murder Inc. He had confessed to the seven murders and placed himself solely in the hands of the government. “Regardless of what happens to me today, I still feel I did the right thing,” Veal said.
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Now, the same prosecutors who dismantled Murder Inc. asked U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, who, by his own admission, had come to court that day ready to send Veal away for life, to spare Veal from such a harsh sentence, saying he deserved instead just 25 years in prison. As prosecutors made their case for leniency, it was apparent that a rare courtroom scene was unfolding. But almost everything about Veal’s case up to that point had been unusual, prosecutors say: He was an extraordinary example of a defendant willing to cooperate, someone who never minimized his own involvement and who was truly sorry. Several of the prosecutors who worked closely with Veal during the past six years were visibly emotional as he addressed the court. Two assistant U.S. attorneys hastily wiped tears during his quiet, 20-minute discourse. “Despite the horrible nature of his crimes, there was a conscience there,” Michael Brittin, the assistant U.S. attorney who worked the most with Veal, explains in a later interview. “His conscience and concern for the victims are ultimately what drove him first to cooperate and then to accept responsibility as he did.” In determining a recommended sentence for Lamberth, the prosecution weighed the severity of Veal’s crimes, the magnitude of his cooperation, and his subsequent rehabilitation. They compared his case with those of defendants in other jurisdictions, and finally, prosecutors offered their personal views on the matter � opinions that varied greatly. “You don’t want people to think literally they can get away with murder just by being the first to come forward. It’s a tough balancing act, and the government knows that,” says Dan Seikaly, former chief of the Criminal Division in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington. Seikaly, now a partner with Troutman Sanders, adds that 25 years seems appropriate. “Knowing what I know about the case, it’s probably worth it. Without this person’s testimony it’s possible that Murder Inc. could have operated for much longer than it did.” PORTRAIT OF A HIT MAN “Trying to understand how and why he committed those crimes is no doubt something that could occupy people for quite a long time,” Brittin says. It’s a question Lamberth asked last week before doling out Veal’s punishment. Careful not to appear as though she were justifying her client’s criminal acts, defense attorney Elise Haldane provided the court with a glimpse of her client’s turbulent past. When Veal was a child growing up in rural Georgia, his parents abused drugs, alcohol, and each other, Haldane said. Her client’s traumatic childhood included witnessing the rape of his mother and watching the Ku Klux Klan burn down his father’s house. As a teenager, Veal became entangled in petty crime and eventually was arrested for stealing a car. But with the help of an elderly relative, he straightened up and, after earning his GED, went on to attend Georgia Military College, where he achieved a 4.0 grade-point average. Veal then decided to enlist in the U.S. Navy. He excelled on the entrance exam, prompting a U.S. Marine Corps recruiter to persuade him to join the Marines instead. Veal was a proud member of the corps and performed well at basic training. But when asked if he had ever been in trouble with the law, Veal answered honestly and divulged his juvenile arrest for car theft. He was immediately discharged from the Marines. Over the next few years the young man married, started a family, and moved to Virginia with the hopes of earning a better living. He took various jobs � bank teller, car salesman, and construction worker � but he claimed the money wasn’t enough to support a family. That’s when Veal again turned to crime, this time to boost his income by selling marijuana in the District. Soon, his small-time marijuana operation expanded, and he met Moore and Kevin Gray, Murder Inc.’s alleged kingpins. The pair later hired Veal to commit murders for the gang in exchange for money. “Back then, I was a coward. I was too weak to say no to people,” he explained to the judge. “Because of my cowardice and my weakness, I caused all these people so much pain.” Wearing the matching tan pants and shirt issued by the witness protection prison where he is being held, the slight and slender defendant described how his association with Moore and Gray spiraled into a three-year killing spree. When Veal’s new associates first called on him to kill someone who they felt jeopardized their operation, Veal said he was afraid of what they might do to him and his family if he said no. So he agreed � a decision, he said, that led to his downfall. SIX-YEAR SOURCE At times throughout the more than two-hour sentencing hearing, Veal was too hysterical to speak; at others, he was silent. At one point, Lamberth leaned forward, his elbows on the bench, and gave a reassuring nod. Four prosecutors spoke on Veal’s behalf, citing his “genuine remorse” and describing how his candor vaulted the case forward, ultimately wiping out the cartel and resulting in convictions for 31 murders and a slew of other violent crimes. “It’s hard to overstate, frankly, the value of his cooperation,” Thomas Heaphy, an assistant U.S. attorney in Washington who led the prosecution, said at the hearing. In addition to describing the defendant’s unwavering assistance, Heaphy talked of Veal’s sincere sorrow and shame � how, when shown photos of the crime scenes, he cowered and turned away from the carnage he had wrought. “This is an individual with significant capacity,” Heaphy said of Veal, adding that someday “he deserves that opportunity to get out and do good instead of bad.” Among the prosecutors who advocated for Veal was Brittin, the first government lawyer to talk with Veal, in August 1999, on the day after he murdered Anthony Watkins, his final victim. Initially, Veal was charged with only one count of murder, and although investigators suspected he was responsible for others, they had no evidence and were unclear about the extent of his involvement with Murder Inc. It was Brittin who � without making any promises to Veal in exchange for his cooperation � offered him the chance to do the right thing by revealing everything he knew about the organization and its crimes, including his own. “All the instincts in my body told me this was going to be far and away the most important witness in the case,” Brittin says. So Brittin made Veal his top priority, although he opted not to pressure the suspect into talking. Instead he gave Veal ample time to decide if he was willing to be completely honest. Brittin made it clear he wanted all or nothing. Then, on an early October morning, Veal was awaiting his arraignment on the single murder charge when he asked to speak with Brittin. The two met in the basement of D.C. Superior Court, and “What he told us was breathtaking,” says Brittin, who indicated that Veal provided volumes of information about dozens of murders, including the seven he committed. There was no arm-twisting. Veal simply rattled off details about murder after murder, some of which investigators knew nothing about until that moment. Suddenly, the slow-moving drug case prosecutors were building against Murder Inc. evolved into a major racketeering case. “It was soon quite easy to determine that my initial instincts about him were correct. He was in a position to change the nature of the case,” Brittin says. In the weeks, months, and even years that followed, Brittin met with Veal on countless occasions. They visited crime scenes and discussed every detail of the murders � an excruciating task for Veal. “I saw this guy come to grips with what he had done,” Brittin says of Veal, whom he describes as an intelligent, articulate, and religious man. “He had to begin to wrestle with, how did this happen?” Eventually, the members of Murder Inc. were indicted and tried. Veal’s testimony led to scores of convictions as well as life sentences for the gang’s leaders and lieutenants. Veal also testified at murder trials in other jurisdictions, which is how he met Jung Choi, a former prosecutor in Prince George’s County, Md., where Veal’s testimony led to the conviction of a long-sought-after killer. Choi spoke on Veal’s behalf at the Dec. 6 hearing, during which he fondly recalled receiving personalized Christmas cards from Veal for several years after the prosecution. FACING FAMILIES In court, Veal listed the names of the men he had murdered, fighting the urge to lower his head and struggling to hold back tears. Veal began to address Watkins, the woman whose son he killed in 1999, but instead broke down and uttered, “I can’t even look at you.” He sobbed for a moment, regained his composure, and continued, saying, “I’m so sorry for taking the life of your son. He was a beautiful person.” Veal then attempted to apologize in Spanish to the wife and daughter of one of his victims, an innocent man he murdered by mistake. He struggled to find the right words in Spanish � a language he recently began to study while in prison � but, unable to convey his message, he broke down again. One by one, Veal apologized to the families of each of his seven victims. He talked of his deep sorrow for causing such pain, of a desire to undo the wrongs of his reckless past, and of his realization that he can take nothing back. When it came time to hand down the sentence, Lamberth said, “I came here to your sentencing thinking I couldn’t give you anything less than life . . . It’s hard for me to say that someone who has committed seven murders should ever see the light of day.” But by the end of the emotional two-and-a-half-hour hearing, the judge told Veal in a sympathetic tone, “I do believe you’re a changed person,” before concurring with the prosecution’s recommendation and sentencing him to 25 years. The 34-year-old defendant already has served six years, which means he could be eligible for release by the time he’s 50. Out of concern for his safety, Veal is imprisoned at an undisclosed, high-security facility for informants whose testimony has placed their lives at risk. He has taken jobs at the prison, as both a baker in the kitchen and a furniture builder. He has become a devout Muslim and has continued his education through classes offered in the prison and online. His studies behind bars have included accounting, Arabic, calligraphy, philosophy, economics, and even crocheting. “I came to prison basically with the mind of a boy, and I stand before you as a man,” Veal told the judge. But neither Veal’s rehabilitation nor his role in disbanding Murder Inc. was enough to absolve him of the murders or to justify his immediate release. “There was a mountain he couldn’t overcome,” Heaphy said at the hearing, “and that’s seven people.”

Sarah Kelley can be contacted at [email protected].

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