When You're Going Through Hell, Keep On Going

Her husband's murder transformed a young wife into a victims' rights advocate. Will Anna Sowers' activism make Baltimore safer?

By Ron Cassie


–Photography by David Rehor

March 2009

Anna Sowers knew something was wrong when her husband didn't respond to news that she'd just spotted Scottie Pippen in a bar. She'd planned this all-girls weekend in Chicago for months. During a break between the spring and summer terms in Sowers' graduate school schedule, the group—four Baltimore friends, all professionals in their 20s and 30s—would relax and enjoy each other's company in the Windy City.

Sowers' husband, Zach, had been on her mind all weekend: In 2005, on another trip to Chicago, he surprised her by proposing during a walk near Lake Michigan.

Now, almost two years to the day later, in Chicago again, Sowers was desperately trying to contact him. At a nightclub with her girlfriends, she had spotted Pippen, the former Chicago Bulls basketball star. Zach was a huge basketball fan. Anytime she went to D.C. to visit the Smithsonian, he would go with family to catch the Washington Wizards. Sowers dialed Zach's cell phone several times and sent text messages that she'd seen Pippen, but he wasn't replying.

"Scottie Pippen would be a big deal to him," she says. "Zach always had his cell phone on, we both did. So it was strange he wasn't replying. It was already 1 a.m. in Chicago, though, so I thought maybe he was in bed."

Zach, she'd learn late the next day, was lying in the street in front of their rowhouse, his body wrenched between the curb and a parked car, less than 10 feet from the front door of their Patterson Park home. Her husband of eight months had been robbed, severely beaten, and left unconscious. He was eventually found and taken to Johns Hopkins Hospital as a John Doe.

Over the next 297 days, as Zach lay in a coma, and after he finally succumbed to his catastrophic injuries in March of 2008, Anna Sowers' outrage at the violent attack and the criminal justice system would transform her from a young newlywed into a powerful victims' rights advocate. She organized "Neighbors' Night Out" campaigns to raise awareness around violence; she led rallies and made countless TV and radio appearances, questioning public officials over the plea deal given to her husband's attackers; she wrote a scathing op-ed about Baltimore's criminal justice system; and she drafted "Zach's Law," a package of legislative proposals aimed to correct the injustices that she found in the handling of her husband's case.

"I never thought I'd be a quasi-public figure with a bullhorn at rallies, talking to the mayor or city council—that was never a part of me," says Sowers, who, since the attack, has moved back to Frederick where she and Zach grew up as childhood friends. "As much as I hate the city, I love the city. It's where Zach and I started our lives together. I want to make sure it never happens again to anybody else."

In fact, immediately after completing her MBA at Johns Hopkins last year—soon after Zach's death—she dramatically changed course and decided to pursue law school. She recently took the LSATs and went through the application process, intending to become a prosecutor to, as she puts it, "lock up bad guys."

Sowers never anticipated that her heartfelt effort to create something positive out of her husband's death would plant her in the middle of a racially charged debate over the causes and effects of violence in Baltimore City. She may not have changed anything yet, but Sowers' tragic story and her activist campaign are likely to have a lasting impact on the city that she both loves and hates.

Kristie Callander, one of Anna Sowers' pals on the Chicago trip, said that, though her girlfriends didn't want to say it, they knew something was wrong the afternoon following their brush with Scottie Pippen.

"Anna kept trying to reach him," Callander recalls. "Someone would say, 'I'm sure he left his phone in the car' or something like that to calm her down. It got worse as the day went on. He's just not the type not to call."

Meanwhile, Sowers' brother, William Cheng, the last person to see Zach, went to their house. Nothing was amiss, except the alarm hadn't been set the night before and their dog Mia, the pug they'd bought together five years earlier, really needed to go to the bathroom—the first clear sign her husband hadn't made it home.

When Zach, a Johns Hopkins financial analyst and part-time D.J., didn't show up to meet a friend for a concert that evening, worry turned to panic.

"We grabbed the last plane back to Baltimore," Callander says.

Sowers watched her husband nearly die three times that night. "I wanted to know [if he would] come out of the coma," she recalls. "Doctors would say it was one out of a thousand [but] we held out hope. We wanted to be optimistic. I knew it was likely going to be very sad."

Anna Sowers began putting in long hours at the hospital, tracking Zach's every surgery, medical procedure, and reaction, posting e-mail updates on a website (zachsowers.com) created by his college pal from Towson, Justin Bright. In the aftermath of her husband's attack, the 27-year-old was quickly forced to deal with hospital administrators, insurance regulations, doctors, nurses, family and in-laws, credit card companies, banks, bills, and decisions about Zach's will and estate.

"His mother was not handling it well, his father was in Ohio, and English is not my parents' first language," says Sowers, whose father and step-mother are Taiwanese immigrants. "I had to be the glue that held everything together." Sowers' mother died when she was young and she says Zach's murder caused her to reflect on that tragedy too, which only compounded the pain.

Sowers, who grew up taking violin and piano lessons, describes herself as "a typical Asian-American overachiever" and still has trouble understanding how, if she has done everything right, her life was devastated by such violence and tragedy.

"I'm young, I have a half-dozen married friends," she says. "I don't know anyone who had lost anyone significant—not to murder. I can't believe this happened to me."

A few days after the attack, police obtained evidence from a surveillance video where Zach Sowers' credit cards were used and arrested four teenagers, Trayvon Ramos, 16, Arthur Jeter, 17, Eric Price, 16, and Wilburt Martin, 18. Sowers began following the prosecution's case very diligently.

"I could feel sorry for myself, 'Oh, cry me a river, I lost my mom, now my husband, and I'm being screwed by Baltimore City justice,' but what good would that have done?" she says. "I wanted to keep the focus on Zach and the issues."

In the first two months after the attack, Sowers continued to be encouraged by her husband's recovery. On the morning of July 3, 2007 she posted an e-mail on zachsowers.com: "The best thing that happened today was that Zach 'localized' for the doctors, meaning that when they stimulated (hurt) him, he brought his arms/hands up to where they were stimulating (hurting) him. This is a huge step neurologically!! Before, he would just move his arms inward a little to show that he felt pain but never touched where it was. So now he's showing that his brain is thinking at the higher level. The nurses and doctors were very excited, as were we. I'm so excited as I'm typing this."

Zach, however, never did wake from the coma. Around this time, Sowers began taking her first steps as a community organizer, putting together "Neighbors Night Out" with friends to raise awareness of the attack and funds for Zach's medical bills. Some 30 bars in Patterson Park, Fells Point, Federal Hill, Canton, the Inner Harbor, and Locust Point donated a percentage of their sales, garnering $13,000.

Continuing her Hopkins MBA classes and channeling her anger into activism, she recognizes, helped stave off depression. "I didn't want to become like a hermit and drown in sorrow," she says.

Later, Sowers, then a Hopkins marketing project manager, spoke at a Take Back the Streets Rally organized by former city councilman and then-mayoral candidate Keiffer Mitchell, telling the crowd how crime touches everyone in Baltimore and stressing the need for awareness and holding public officials accountable.

The sympathetic young wife, delicately featured and attractive—almost fragile in physical appearance—may not have envisioned herself as "a quasi-public figure with a bullhorn at rallies," but the former CNN intern proved confident in front of a microphone and camera. Fueled by anger, she was never intimidated about calling on top city and state elected leaders.

With the assistance of an acquaintance, Hopkins Medicine magazine editor Ramsey Flynn (a former editor at Baltimore magazine), Sowers continued to generate media attention for her husband's case and her crusade against violence. Her initial objective was to ensure Zach's attackers were charged as adults, and then to get to a jury that would listen to the evidence. She sought and received encouragement from Mitchell and other local leaders.

Marvin 'Doc' Cheatham, head of the Baltimore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, met with her several times and proved an especially eager supporter. He accompanied her to the courthouse for Zach's attackers' hearings and later hosted Sowers, Flynn, and Examiner reporter Luke Broadwater on the NAACP Report cable show.

The tipping point in the story, both in terms of Sowers' activism and media attention, came after Baltimore state's attorney Patricia Jessamy's office accepted pleas from the attackers in December 2007. With Zach still in a coma, Ramos plead guilty to first-degree attempted murder and robbery and was sentenced to 40 years in prison, though he would be eligible for parole in 20 years. His co-defendants, Price, Jeter, and Martin each received eight years in prison. For Sowers, justice was far from served.

Accepting a plea from Ramos after the other three had agreed to testify against him was a clear sign, Sowers felt, that the state's attorney general's office feared taking the case—any case—to a Baltimore jury. When prosecutors explained why they wanted to cut a plea deal with the attackers, Sowers says they explicitly described "the harsh realities of Baltimore City jurors," i.e., that they tend to be lenient on African-American defendants.

Later, when an Abell Foundation study reported that city juries are overwhelmingly less likely than county juries to convict defendants on the most serious charges brought before them (see sidebar), Sowers responded with a strongly-worded op-ed in The Examiner that attacked Pat Jessamy for dismissing the report—which had been commissioned by her deputy prosecutors.

"It's no secret that Baltimore City juries are notoriously biased against prosecutors and cops," she wrote. "The notion is that the mostly black jury pool distrusts the mostly nonblack justice system, and freeing black defendants is their way of settling old scores. . . . Pat Jessamy's rejection of the Abell Foundation's report on the city's jury problems exposes her self-defeating 'leadership' style in a way that should frighten every city taxpayer."

While city leaders, elected officials, and law enforcement officials maintain that addressing issues of education, health care, and poverty are crucial to reducing the cycle of violence, Sowers, who says she supports measures aimed at preventing youth from turning to crime, has definitively chosen to focus her attention on legal and judicial issues.

She put together a series of legal proposals called "Zach's Law." The piece most directly tied to Zach's case calls for murder charges when a victim has fallen into a persistent, vegetative state. University of Baltimore criminal and constitutional law professor Byron Warnken said a new law could make it possible to retry a defendant who had been offered a plea if the victim dies after the agreement has been reached.

Other sections of "Zach's Law" seek to open juvenile records to law enforcement agencies across state lines and to keep juvenile records from being wiped clean after offenders' 22nd birthday, as is current policy. Patrick Dooley, legislative aid to Delegate Peter Hammen, who has met with Sowers, said prior to the 2009 General Assembly that, while "Zach's Law" has been discussed, "nothing like ink to paper has been done."

The most controversial aspect of Sowers' efforts has been challenging what she and others perceive as jury bias in the city.

Earlier this year, with Flynn's encouragement, she sought to organize the "Black 25," a group of black leaders in the city who would publicly denounce Baltimore's "Stop Snitching" culture that, they believed, not only hindered investigations, but frightened juries. "Stop Snitching" has become a mantra in hip-hop songs, on T-shirts, and on an infamous underground DVD featuring Baltimore-born NBA star Carmelo Anthony. The idea is to discourage people from informing on or testifying against people committing crimes. Most urban activists decry the sentiment. But by bringing race into the equation, Sowers alienated many black community leaders who had been among her staunchest allies and demonstrated her inexperience as an activist.

Sowers and Flynn approached Baltimore NAACP leader Cheatham, president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County Freeman Hrabowski, pastor Frank Reid III of the Bethel AME Church, Rep. Elijah Cummings, pastor Heber Brown III of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church, and Marcus Dent, chapter commander of the Baltimore Guardian Angels. All soundly rejected the idea.

Pastor Brown, who is also second vice president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance and founder of Young Clergy for Social Change, met with Sowers and Flynn to hear their proposal for the "Black 25" and said that while he believed Sowers and Flynn to be "pure in intent," their idea struck him as naïve. "If all it took to abolish and do away with [the 'Stop Snitching' culture] was for 25 black leaders to make a pronouncement, that would have been done a long time ago," he says. Brown says that, like many in the black community, he sees the crime issue from several perspectives: He lost a cousin to murder and has another family member incarcerated on drug charges.

Of the 282 Baltimore homicides in 2007, only a dozen of the victims were white, like Zach. Brown, while expressing deep sympathy for Sowers, says he finds it "remarkable" that after another 220-plus murders in 2008 "we are still talking about this one." Few of the victims' families, he says, have the resources that Sowers, with the aid of friends in Hopkins's communications department, can match to keep their loved ones and their issue in the media spotlight.

Sowers agrees that she and Brown didn't see "eye to eye." "I'm not a social reformer," she says. "I'm a victims' rights activist. I'm about holding people who commit crimes accountable." Although she admits to frustration, she also vows to push forward. "Sometimes, I think, why is this even my problem, I'm not a public official. I'm not the mayor. I have no idea what it takes to make a difference, to make the city safer," she says. "The homicide rate might be lower, but I don't feel safe, nor do my friends."

At least for now, her outspoken and passionate activism in raising community-awareness remains Anna Sowers' greatest memorial to her husband. "I can tell you that a few months after Anna's husband was attacked, a lady carrying a purse in Canton and was attacked and mugged and we had 120 people at our next community relations meeting," says Melissa Techentin, president of the Southeast Police Community Relations Council. "That's because of her."

Anna Sowers never actually took her husband's last name. Her name is Anna Cheng. When the media began referring to her as "Anna Sowers" she realized it was better not to correct anyone—it would afford her more anonymity at work and in grad school, which it did.

Now, beyond deciding which law school to attend, she is trying to figure out the rest of her life. She remains friends with members of her tight-knit Patterson Park/Canton/Fells Point community, although those days are gone.

"This has been the longest and shortest year of my life—sometimes I forget that I turned 28 years old," she says. "The shortest year because everyday was the same. I'd go to work and then the hospital. No difference between Monday and Thursday. Weekends, the same thing, except I didn't go to work. All day long, I'd worry if Zach was okay, if he was going to survive until I got to the hospital. The longest year of my life because so much has happened. There was never time to digest it. I never felt the shock."

Though she intends to become a prosecutor, Anna doesn't think she can stomach violent crime cases, adding she can't watch television programs like Law and Order or CSI without thinking of her husband. She imagines working in white-collar crime.

She remembers being fearful at first, taking Krav Maga self-defense classes, buying mace, and considering purchasing a gun (she never did). When Zach was still in a coma, she remembers seeing his stuff around the house, like his Towson ID card, and putting his laundry away and wondering if he'd ever wear those clothes again.

She got mad at herself for washing his pillow because it had smelled like him, and vowed not to wash any more of his clothes. They had talked about kids down the road, about moving west, to Chicago or San Francisco. She doesn't believe, as some people have told her, "that everything happens for a reason."

"Anybody who tells you that is happy," she says. She hasn't found God or forgiveness. "I will hate the people who did this all my life."

But she does badly want something meaningful to come from her husband's murder—a law that will provide a sense of justice in his name and, hopefully, prevent other families from experiencing such devastating pain. For herself, she says she found strength in recalling how the Sept. 11 families managed to handle their grief. And, in the cap of a Snapple bottle from a lunch shared with a friend four months after the attack on her husband, she found words to live by.

"There was a quote and it said, 'If you are going through hell, keep on going,'" she recalls. "It's from Winston Churchill. I didn't get it. I was like, 'Who wants to stay in hell?' Then, I realized what it meant. If you keep going, eventually you'll get out. I'm just not there yet."


City Juries vs. County Juries

Explaining the glaring differences in verdicts

Anna Sowers and other activists frequently cite a September 2008 study by the Baltimore-based Abell Foundation, which reported a major disparity in jury verdicts for defendants in Baltimore City versus those in three surrounding counties.

The most remarkable finding, based on 293 selected cases from July 1, 2005, to June 30, 2006, was that Baltimore City jurors convicted defendants on the most serious charges against them only 2 percent of the time. By comparison, Baltimore, Anne Arundel, and Howard County juries convicted defendants of the most serious charges in 63 percent of the cases brought to trial.

That dramatic finding was somewhat offset by the fact that City juries were more likely than county juries to convict defendants of lesser charges, 61 percent to 28 percent. But city juries' hesitancy to convict defendants of the most serious charges got wide play in local print media and talk radio.
Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy questioned the study's methodology, results, conclusions, and proposed remedies, which included the creation of regional jury pools.

"To bring people in from Howard, Baltimore, and Anne Arundel Counties does not promote the cause of equal justice, and, I believe, is unconstitutional," said Jessamy. She says the central problem remains the issue of trust between city police and citizens.

University of Baltimore law professor Byron L. Warnken says the findings affirm what was learned more than a decade ago during the O. J. Simpson murder trial—predominantly black juries and predominantly white juries will look at the same evidence and reach different conclusions based on their personal experiences.

"My observation is that the more rural, white juries tend to trust police and prosecutors too much, and urban juries, not enough," Warnken said.

Baltimore City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, a former defense attorney, acknowledged a troubling reality: "Defendants know they'll get a better deal in Baltimore City than in the counties."

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