— Maraleius Birdsong didn’t know Stephawn Brown. They lived near one another and attended the same high school, but the two had taken much different paths in life.

Birdsong was a 20-year-old pizza deliveryman with a big smile. He worked hard to pay for his schooling. He was loved by his family.

Brown, 19, had dropped out of Fort Dorchester High School in the 11th grade. Abused as a kid, he’d been arrested and, at times, had been homeless and living on his own.

While Birdsong and Brown were strangers to one another, their lives became forever linked on March 9. That’s when Brown fired a bullet into Birdsong’s head during a holdup. The shot killed Birdsong and put Brown on the path to imprisonment.

A Dorchester County judge on Friday sentenced Brown to 49 years in a state correctional institution after the young man cut his trial short by pleading guilty to killing Birdsong. He’ll be 68 years old when he’s allowed out of prison.

“It does provide some closure,” said Birdsong’s mother, Teresa Gardner. She called the sentence justified after the hearing ended Friday morning.

She’d spent all week sitting in the front row watching Brown’s trial. On Thursday, he pleaded guilty to murder and armed robbery in the killing, which occurred outside the Appian Way Apartments in North Charleston.

How it happened

Birdsong and Brown met by chance that March night last year. Birdsong was the driver randomly assigned to deliver an order placed by Brown: two boxes of wings and three boxes of cinnamon sticks, prosecutors said.

Brown had no intention of paying the $38.79 bill. Brown and his friend, 18-year-old Jontae Davis, had come up with the plan earlier in the evening to rob a pizza deliveryman, according to testimony. They didn’t much care who showed up.

They didn’t know Birdsong was a straight-A student who yearned to be an electrical engineer. They didn’t know that Birdsong was working at Domino’s Pizza on Dorchester Road to pay for the education at Trident Technical College that would help get him to that goal. To Davis and Brown, he was just a “pizza-man.”

According to trial testimony, the pair’s plan played out this way:

The two friends hid in the shadows and waited, with Brown dressed in a black hoodie and a mask.

They then watched Birdsong as he walked to the apartment number Brown had provided during the order.

After Birdsong knocked on two apartment doors, unable to find who had ordered the food, he walked back to his car.

In the parking lot, Brown and Davis approached him. Brown pointed a 9 mm handgun at Birdsong and demanded the food he was carrying.

Birdsong handed over his “hot box” with the food in it, but Brown wanted more. He demanded Birdsong’s cell phone.

When Birdsong told Brown he didn’t have it on him, Brown got angry. In an attempt to save his own life, Birdsong turned around and ran. Brown shot him in the back of the head.

Davis told the jury that he asked Brown later that night why he shot Birdsong. “He said because the guy wouldn’t give him the cell phone. He said he shouldn’t play with him like that,” Davis said.

Hard life, poor choices

Brown never provided his own explanation of how the crime occurred.

During sentencing, he didn’t say a word. Defendants can speak, if they choose, before the judge hands down the sentence. Many take the opportunity to express remorse or plead for leniency. Brown did neither.

Birdsong’s mother said that didn’t matter. “He confessed to the crime and that was good enough for us,” Gardner said.

Brown’s former buddy, Davis, pleaded guilty before the trial started to voluntary manslaughter and armed robbery. Davis, who also testified against Brown, received a sentence of 20 years in prison.

Gardner said she hopes the sentences the two men received will serve as a lesson to other young people. “Stay in school, get your education, be a productive member of society,” she said.

David Price, a forensic psychologist who testified during sentencing, said he sympathized with Brown over the kind of life he lived. Brown practically raised himself. He grew up without guidance and with abuse, Price told the court.

Mark Leiendecker, Brown’s attorney, told the judge that his client’s poor upbringing serves as important context.

“It doesn’t excuse what happened on March the 9th, but the fact he comes from this extremely unfortunate background helps explain how he got there,” Leiendecker said.

Birdsong’s family said that doesn’t excuse Brown’s actions. But Birdsong’s aunt, Julianna Cruz, said they will keep advocating for the community’s youth so that others don’t stray along that same path.

“It could have been anybody’s child on either side,” she said. “So we say to the community, get involved. Don’t ask what the community can do for you, but what can you, yourself, what can you do to improve the situation?”

Reach Natalie Caula at 937-5594 or Twitter.com/ncaula.