Defense goes after eyewitness in York City double-murder trial
Jurors don't have to decide whether York City resident Dejerek Basil Smallwood shot and killed two men in 2013 during a drug deal that went bad. He admits it.
But Smallwood, 23, known as "Diego," maintains he fatally shot Derek Ferree and Braydon Aldinger in self-defense because they were attacking him.
In April, Smallwood withdrew his negotiated guilty plea to two counts of voluntary manslaughter because he believed he could convince a jury he is innocent, according to defense attorney Dawn Cutaia, who is jointly representing him with fellow attorney Suzanne Smith.
Withdrawing his manslaughter plea is a gamble for Smallwood because it means he faces conviction on first- or third-degree murder. In Pennsylvania, a first-degree murder conviction comes with an automatic life sentence.
During her opening statement Monday afternoon, first assistant district attorney Jennifer Russell told jurors Ferree, Aldinger and Arianna Tavares wanted to buy heroin from Tavares' regular drug dealer, Laquan Pierrelouis, known as "Q."
They met on West Mason Avenue, a York City alley, on Nov. 23, 2013, and a fistfight erupted, with Ferree and Aldinger on side and Smallwood and Pierrelous on the other, Russell said.
"The defendant ... brought a gun to a fistfight — a scuffle," she told jurors. "Instead of running away ... (Smallwood) chose to stay. He chose to end the fight by taking the lives of ... Derek and Brayden."
That, according to Russell, makes the deaths murders and not justifiable self-defense shootings. She acknowledged there had been "some discussion" between Tavares, Ferree and Aldinger about "ripping off" Pierrelouis, but Russell said the idea was abandoned.
'Panic and fear': Cutaia, during her opening statement, said the plan all along was for Ferree, 26, and Aldinger, 23, both of Manchester Township, to rob a drug dealer to get heroin or money for heroin.
Ferree sucker-punched Smallwood in the face, Cutaia said, and there was pain and blood.
"And then there was panic and fear because two grown men were attacking him," she said. "There's nothing but chaos as he's getting beat. He's getting punched over and over and over again and he can't get away."
That's when Ferree and Aldinger started reaching in Smallwood's pockets, according to Cutaia. Smallwood knew he had a gun in his left pocket and didn't want them to use it against him, she said.
"And so he pulls his gun out and shoots three times," Cutaia said. "He's not aiming. He's not trying to kill anybody."
Tavares testified Monday afternoon, and her account of the shooting bolstered what Russell had previously told jurors. She was a heroin addict at the time but has been clean 21 months, she said.
But Cutaia questioned Tavares' story during a blistering cross-examination.
Differing statements: When Tavares insisted there was never a plan to rob Pierrelouis, Cutaia repeatedly confronted the witness with her statements to police at the time.
Back then, Tavares repeatedly told York City detectives that she, Ferree and Aldinger had planned to rob a drug dealer.
She told detectives Ferree had a hammer in his hand and was bragging about beating someone, but now says she doesn't remember that statement or others she made to police.
Cutaia also made sure jurors knew Tavares stated to police that she told a friend she wasn't sure she should rob Pierrelouis because he was her heroin connection and she didn't want to lose him.
Tavares also previously told detectives she saw Pierrelouis fire a gun three times in the alley. On Monday, Tavares admitted that wasn't true.
"I was high and nervous. ... There's a lot of statements I do not remember," Tavares told Cutaia. "I used the word 'rob,' but that is not the word I should have used."
"Is English your first language?" Cutaia asked rhetorically.
Pierrelouis is cooperating with the prosecution and also is expected to testify against Smallwood. Trial is set to resume Wednesday morning.
— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at firstname.lastname@example.org.