This article was originally published on GoErie.com by Madeleine O’Neill on Jan 26, 2018
The lawyer for Russell, Eric Hackwelder, said in an interview that the prosecution witness was Eugene Husband, and that Husband was “allegedly going to testify” that Russell and Jones were in the SUV whose occupants, according to the Erie police, fired the fatal shots. Husband was to be the final prosecution witness for District Attorney Jack Daneri.
Jones’ lawyer, Jessica Mann, of Philadelphia, also confirmed that Cunningham granted the judgments of acquittal due to Husband’s failure to appear.
“The star witness, Eugene Husband, of course, lied from the beginning,” Mann said. “That is why he ran and hid from the District Attorney’s Office.”
Daneri, who was continuing to prosecute the case with First Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Hirz, was not immediately available for comment.
Daneri told jurors in his opening statement on Monday that a witness who identified Russell, Jones and McLaurin as being in the SUV also heard one of the occupants say they planned to “do a drive-by” at the party because “there’s people we don’t like there.”
Husband was the witness who had been expected to testify to that information, Hackwelder said Thursday.
“Because that person failed to appear, there was nobody to put my client in that vehicle, and there was no physical or forensic evidence to link my client,” Hackwelder said.
The Erie police on Thursday morning were looking for Husband, but police said Thursday evening that he is no longer wanted and police are no longer looking for him.
The police charged that Russell, Jones and the other defendants fired or conspired to fire shots from the SUV as it drove through a crowded outdoor party at West 29th and Summit streets on the night of July 24, 2015. Franklin was fatally wounded, though police said he was not the intended target.
Even before Husband failed to show up, Hackwelder and Mann had maintained the evidence against their clients was lacking.
“This is a classic case of misidentification,” Hackwelder told the jury in his opening statement.
A palm print belonging to Jones was recovered from the SUV, which crashed at the scene, according to trial testimony.
But, Mann said, without Husband’s testimony, “there was no witness that placed Jahaun Jones at the scene.”
Russell and Jones had been held at the Erie County Prison with no bond set because they had been accused of homicide. They will now go free of charges in the homicide case, though Hackwelder said Russell remains in prison in another case. Jones’ status was not immediately available.
“We send our deepest regrets to the other family,” Russell’s aunt, Eleanor Johnson, said after Cunningham’s rulings. “We’re just happy that he’s coming home.”
The judgments of acquittal were the latest blows to the prosecution in a trial that had already been plagued by reluctant witnesses and limited evidence. As of Thursday, the evidence appeared strongest against McLaurin, who was driving the SUV and was at the scene, his lawyer has told the jury.
Two .38-caliber revolvers, each containing five spent shell casings, were recovered in or near the crashed SUV, according to trial testimony.
But McLaurin’s lawyer, Gene Placidi, has told jurors that McLaurin had nothing to do with the shooting. He presented evidence Thursday from a neighbor who said Summit Street was so crowded with partygoers that it would have been difficult for a car to drive down the block.
Placidi also told jurors during his closing argument that another vehicle, not McLaurin’s, was responsible for the shooting, and that the evidence showed a number of guns had been fired in the area around the party. The bullet that killed Franklin, Placidi said, could have come from a gun that was never recovered.
“There could have been multiple, multiple guns shooting on that scene that we have no idea about,” Placidi said.
The defense of Mitchell, the other defendant, has been based on an argument of mistaken identity.
Mitchell took the stand on Thursday after the prosecution rested its case and the remaining defendants started presenting their cases. Under questioning from his lawyer, John Carlson, Mitchell testified that he was at his girlfriend’s apartment at the time of the shooting. Other people who lived at the apartment also testified he was present there.
Carlson asked jurors to disregard the statement of a girl who told police she saw Mitchell exiting the crashed SUV after the shooting. The girl, now 17 years old, largely recanted her statement to police during her testimony Wednesday, when she told jurors she had “made assumptions” when she named Mitchell.
The prosecution on Tuesday presented physical evidence in the case, including the fingerprints from McLaurin and Jones that were recovered from the vehicle. The vehicle’s inner lining also tested positive for gunshot residue, according to Tuesday’s testimony.
Daneri pointed to this evidence, and to statements from witnesses who said they saw gunshots coming from a car, during his closing argument.
“There is so much evidence that this was a drive-by,” he told jurors. “They were struck by gunfire in a drive-by.”
The case against the four defendants was one of two to grow out of shootings at the party at West 29th and Summit streets.
Also killed at the party was 16-year-old Elijah Jackson, who died in a shooting that coincided with the shooting of Franklin. The four defendants were not charged in the death of Jackson, who police also said was not an intended target.
Another man, 23-year-old Darion A. Eady, was convicted in February of third-degree murder in Jackson’s death and is serving 23 years and 10 months to 47 years and eight months in state prison.
In the case of Franklin’s death, the four defendants faced charges including homicide, conspiracy, aggravated assault and reckless endangerment.
After hearing nearly four hours of closing arguments Thursday afternoon, jurors will begin deliberating Friday.
They will be instructed to consider first-degree murder, or a premeditated killing, and third-degree murder, or an unpremeditated killing with malice.