York City man acquitted of murdering amputee uncle
Jurors took about an hour to acquit a York City man of murdering his amputee uncle for drug money — and that hour included lunch, according to Ronald Lee Carter's defense team.
"He told me the very first time I met him that he didn't kill his uncle and would stay in jail as long as it took for me to prove he didn't do it," defense attorney Jonelle Harter Eshbach told The York Dispatch.
Carter, 56, was released from York County Prison on Friday, Jan. 5, the same day he was exonerated in York County Court of first-degree murder, second-degree murder and robbery.
Victim Terry Leonard, 66, suffered a fatal stab wound to the chest overnight Sept. 1, 2016, inside his room at 601 W. King St., which is a boarding house, according to trial testimony.
Carter was arrested about two weeks later and committed to York County Prison, where he remained for nearly 16 months until being released last week.
Eshbach, along with co-defense attorney Tom Kelley, went after prosecution witnesses during the three-day trial. They challenged the witnesses' credibility, made at least one cry and suggested two of them could be behind the slaying.
"Ladies and gentlemen, he didn't do it. ... He did not kill his uncle," Eshbach told jurors during her opening statement, adding there were holes in the prosecution's case that "you could drive a Mack truck through."
Missing 'eyewitness': Also during her opening, Eshbach went after a woman she described as the prosecution's star eyewitness, who was expected to testify she witnessed Carter stab Leonard. That witness is a crack addict and a prostitute, Eshbach said.
The purported eyewitness was not called to testify, according to Eshbach.
Senior deputy prosecutor Justin Roberts, who tried the case with first assistant district attorney Jennifer Russell, told the jury during his opening statement that Carter was a crack-cocaine addict who was looking for two things the day his uncle was killed — crack and the cash to buy it.
"He was greedy, he was desperate," Roberts said. "The defendant would do whatever he needed to do to get those two things, even if it included murder."
When Leonard's body was found on Sept. 2, 2016, both front pockets of his jeans had been turned out, Roberts noted.
Plenty of desperation: But Eshbach told jurors Carter wasn't the only one with addiction issues.
"There's a whole lot of people in this case (who are) desperate for money and crack," she said.
During trial, Kelley took the lead in going after prosecution witnesses, especially Justin Grim and his fianceé, Alicia Jordan, both of whom Kelley suggested had the motive and opportunity to commit the homicide.
For a few weeks around the time of the slaying, Carter lived with Grim, Jordan and the couple's 5-month-old daughter in an apartment in the 200 block of South West Street.
Neither Grim nor Carter was working, and both were out stealing from people to get crack money so they and Jordan could smoke the drug, according to Grim's and Jordan's testimony.
Each testified Carter stayed with them in exchange for sharing his crack cocaine with them and also for sometimes watching their baby.
Victim on disability: On direct questioning, Grim and Jordan told jurors that Carter mentioned his uncle received Social Security disability checks and said he intended to ask Leonard for money. Jurors learned during trial that Leonard was a diabetic whose left leg had been amputated.
Carter went to Leonard's room about 9 p.m. or so that night, then returned and said Leonard needed someone to fix his phone and would pay them for it, the couple testified. Jordan accompanied Carter back to Leonard's room but realized she couldn't immediately fix the phone, she said.
Leonard gave her $20 and agreed to give her another $20 once she fixed it, Jordan testified.
The couple told jurors it was Carter who returned the unfixed phone to Leonard the night of Sept. 1, 2016. When he got back to the couple's South West Street apartment, "he was really antsy, kind of nervous, acting funny," Grim testified.
Money spent on crack: Grim and Jordan testified Carter also returned with quite a bit of crack and cash. Grim estimated Carter had $100 to $150 in crack, plus cash. Jordan estimated it was closer to $160 to $200 worth of the drug, plus cash.
Grim said when he asked Carter where he got the money, Carter said he didn't want to talk about it. Jordan testified Carter gave conflicting stories that included robbing a drug dealer.
Both Grim and Jordan also testified they eventually realized a knife was missing from their kitchen.
But their testimony faltered during cross-examination, and a frustrated Jordan ended up in tears as she tried, but failed, to outmaneuver Kelley's questioning.
Kelley first went after Grim, getting the man to confirm he and Jordan were in financial straits and about to be evicted; that the couple didn't go to police with their suspicions; and that Grim initially told police no knives were missing from his kitchen.
'Help yourself': Grim said he "wanted to help police 'cause it's the right thing to do," but Kelley was quick with a retort:
"Or to help yourself," the attorney suggested, "like you help yourself to other people's property when it suits you?"
"Sure," a defensive Grim agreed during the acrimonious cross-examination.
Kelley also got Grim to acknowledge that after the trio smoked the $100 to $200 worth of crack that Carter supposedly brought home, it was Grim who paid a drug dealer $100 for more. However, Grim insisted that $100 came from Carter.
Jordan testified on direct examination that after York City Police first spoke with Carter and released him, Carter directed her to say nothing about Leonard's Social Security money or that Carter had visited him that night.
Kelley challenged Jordan, asking how she suddenly came into hundreds of dollars the next day to pay off court fines and costs, and suggested perhaps it was Leonard's stolen money.
Smirk, then tears: Jordan — a triumphant smirk on her face — responded that it was her mother, who used a credit card, to pay off the overdue fines.
"You didn't check the billing records," she told Kelley smugly.
But it was just a few minutes later that Kelley's questions reduced Jordan to tears, including when Kelley pointed out that Jordan allowed a man she apparently thought was a murderer to live in her home with her baby for a week.
On redirect, Jordan said she didn't kill Leonard. She also said she and Grim have jobs, live in a nice place and no longer smoke crack.
Kelley argued during closing arguments that testimony indicated Leonard's pants were undone and open, and that the stab wound was at an upward trajectory, as if the killer was kneeling in front of Leonard, according to Eshbach.
"We're pretty confident Ronald Carter wasn't kneeling in front of (the victim) with his pants open, if you follow my drift," she said.
Eshbach also said the jury might have wondered why the prosecution's "star eyewitness," as the defense described her in opening statements, was never called to the witness stand.
That woman gave investigators multiple versions of what happened in Leonard's room that night, including that she wasn't there at all; that another man did it; and that Carter did it.
1st murder in decade: Carter's trial was Eshbach's first murder case in about a decade, and her first as a defense attorney.
She and Kelley previously tried murders and other crimes together as top prosecutors with the York County District Attorney's Office.
Eshbach then went to Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office, where she was senior deputy attorney general and instrumental in the child-sex-abuse prosecution of Penn State's former assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky.
— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.