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A judge sentenced James Kenneth Clay Jr. on Thursday to life in prison without the possibility of parole on a charge of first-degree felony murder for the shooting death last winter of a St. Inigoes man.

Jurors also convicted Clay, 36, at a trial last July of a burglary-conspiracy offense and a handgun charge in the Feb. 7 nighttime attack on 37-year-old Robert Lee McDowney Sr. at his home off Beachville Road. St. Mary’s Circuit Judge Karen H. Abrams sentenced Clay to 26 consecutive years for those offenses.

After the hearing, McDowney’s mother and Clay’s mother tearfully hugged each other outside the courtroom.

“I lost a son, and you all lost a son,” Darlene “Dee Dee” McDowney said.

As she got on an elevator to leave the courthouse, she added, “Two children are gone, for what? It’s stupid.”

Clay was the first of three defendants to stand trial in the case. Andre Lionel Bowman, 31, of Laurel is seeking a new trial after he was convicted last month of first-degree felony murder in the case, and another judge agreed this week to a request by Bowman’s lawyer that police look for DNA evidence on any swabs from the investigation that have not already been tested. Joseph William Medley III, a 30-year-old Great Mills resident, is scheduled to go on trial in November, from his arrest on charging papers alleging he planned the home invasion.

During Clay’s trial, McDowney’s girlfriend identified Clay as one of two armed intruders who came into the residence demanding money, and said that she heard a “pop” noise as the other culprit, wearing a mask, chased her into a bedroom while demanding money. She testified that the masked man found about $700 in a bedroom closet and some crack cocaine, and that after the two intruders left, she went to a neighbor’s home to call for help for her wounded boyfriend. Jurors were told that Bowman’s cellphone was found at the scene.

St. Mary’s State’s Attorney Richard Fritz (R) contended during Clay’s trial that Clay and Bowman, identified by the prosecutor as the masked intruder, got a ride to the trailer in a car driven by a Hyattsville woman. The prosecutor said that the woman and her two passengers initially met with Medley, who showed them where McDowney lived but did not accompany them to the trailer.

At Clay’s sentencing on Thursday, Fritz said that with Maryland no longer having the death penalty, life without parole is now the maximum penalty and should be applied to the most heinous of homicides. As nighttime burglaries are considered more egregious than ones that occur in the daytime, the prosecutor said, the same approach should apply to a lethal home invasion carried out after sunset.

“In the nighttime, people in the home are resting or sleeping, [and] are in an aura of security,” Fritz said. “This is one type of crime that sends shudders among every citizen of St. Mary’s County. This is an issue of one of the most protected rights that we have, to live safely and securely in our homes in the nighttime.”

Fritz said that while Clay has maintained his innocence in the case, he was overheard saying that if Bowman “didn’t lose his cell phone, we wouldn’t be here.” The prosecutor said of Clay, “The only remorse he has is being apprehended.”

Gerald Riviello, Clay’s public defender, said of his client, “He is not the evil person that he’s made out to be in the media and [an initial] warrant’s allegations,” and the defense lawyer questioned the credibility of the women who testified against Clay at his trial.

“The evidence against Mr. Clay comes down to two people,” Riviello said. “No piece of evidence was presented in this case against Mr. Clay.”

Abrams said she found the prosecution witnesses to be “completely credible,” and that the evidence and a presentence investigation report suggests that Clay was a longtime drug dealer who was advised by Bowman of “new territory” in St. Mary’s to conduct his business.

Abrams said there were no indications that Clay would be a productive citizen if he were ever released from prison. “It’s scary,” she said. “It’s just downright frightening.”

jwharton@somdnews.com