By: Angela Roberts and Victoria Ebner
Senior staff writers
On Sundays, Amy Odegaard and Ed Novak sit at the wooden pews of Washington D.C.’s All Souls Church Unitarian, singing and praying as warm light cascades down onto them from the chandeliers hanging above.
They were seated at a pew-like bench on Wednesday, too. But the voices ringing out through the room didn’t belong to their pastor or fellow congregants — they belonged to a judge, a squad of attorneys and a series of witnesses.
It was the first day of testimony in the trial for the former University of Maryland student charged in the killing of 2nd Lt. Richard Collins, and Odegaard and Novak had come in a show of solidarity for the Bowie State University student’s family.
The two, who decided to come to the trial after the Collinses visited their church to ask for the support of congregants, weren’t the only ones to do so. Early on in the proceedings, the room in Prince George’s County Circuit Court became so filled that bailiffs had to turn observers away.
“We feel this is important to them, as well as for everyone to know the community supports them in the face of this really horrible and tragic crime,” Novak said.
Sean Urbanski, from Severna Park, is facing hate crime and murder charges in Collins’ death. On Wednesday, attorneys for both sides presented opening statements. Prosecutors also called several witnesses.
In clean white lettering, three words leapt out from the dark button pinned to Novak’s suit coat: “Love Not Hate.” It was a phrase speckled across the courtroom, emblazoned on stickers and buttons worn by observers — all of which had been donated by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a nonprofit organization dedicated to combating racial discrimination.
“It’s just a symbol of love,” said Kieaira Lucas, a project assistant with the organization’s James Byrd Jr. Center to Stop Hate. “Hate should never overpower love.”
Lucas and her boyfriend, Hasani Winchester-Cheseman, squeezed into the tightly packed courtroom Wednesday, arriving a few hours after the trial began. They entered quietly, but their matching gold shirts stood out in a sea of mostly dark attire. “Justice 4 Richard,” they spelled out in bold lettering.
Apart from Lucas’ involvement with the James Byrd Jr. Center to Stop Hate, she feels a connection to Collins’ story. She and Winchester-Cheseman graduated from Bowie State University in 2016, a year before Collins was supposed to. They remembered him as being a positive person, committed to his school and to his country.
“Despite the fact that he’s not here physically, we know he feels our support,” Lucas said. “We want to make sure to uplift his life and his legacy and the positive things he did while he was in this world — not just the incident that took him out of this world.”
Before the court broke for lunch, though, Judge Lawrence Hill announced to the room that observers should refrain from wearing clothing that depicted symbols or statements relevant to the case to avoid undue influence on the jury. The bailiffs would be allowed to block the entry of anyone who didn’t comply, he said.
Hill’s request was “somewhat ludicrous,” Winchester-Cheseman said.
But he still tugged the shirt over his head and turned it inside out before pulling it back on. Before she reentered the courtroom, Lucas did the same, making it clear that she was doing so for the family’s sake. The trial has already been delayed four times, and she said she doesn’t want its outcome to be put off any longer.
Despite the rules the judge attached to observing the trial, though, Winchester-Cheseman still stressed the importance of appearing in the courtroom.
“We tend to get a little desensitized when things like this happen,” he said. “It’s good to come, and show our support and to show that this is not another incident that you hear on the news where next week, you hear about another incident and you just forget it.”