Jury: Cox guilty of murdering York City pot dealer

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch

Jurors on Friday took about 3½ hours to find Vernon "Vito" Cox Jr. guilty of first-, second- and third-degree murder in the shooting death of Ryan Small.

Although Cox is scheduled to be sentenced at 11 a.m. April 12, it's merely a formality.

Vernon Cox Jr.

In Pennsylvania, adults convicted of first- and second-degree murder receive automatic life sentences with no possibility of parole.

After leaving the courtroom, Cox's sister wept in the arms of defense attorney Jennifer Smith, who said Cox will appeal the verdict.

"I'm disappointed, but this isn't the end," Smith said.

Jurors began deliberating the morning of Friday, March 9, after closing arguments. Cox did not take the witness stand in his own defense.

'A regular day': First assistant district attorney Jennifer Russell, in her closing, told jurors that to Small, Jan. 15, 2017, "was just a regular day — a routine situation."

Small, 22, of York City, sold marijuana. That night, he was contacted by regular customer Leon White III to meet him near the corner of West Princess and South Hartley streets so White could buy a quarter-ounce of pot.

"Unbeknownst to Ryan Small, Leon White and the defendant, Vernon Cox, had ... a more sinister plan," Russell argued — to lure Small to an area where the two men could rob him.

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White remains charged with first-, second- and third-degree murder and being a felon in illegal possession of a firearm. He testified against Cox earlier this week, telling jurors that Cox opened the front passenger door of Small's car and "just started shooting."

Small drove off, with Cox firing a last shot "for good measure" at the fleeing car, Russell said. Small crashed head-on into another vehicle, jumped out and tried to run but collapsed on the sidewalk and died from two gunshot wounds to the torso.

Russell said she doesn't yet know whether White's charges will end in a plea agreement or whether he too will stand trial for Small's murder.

Accomplice lied: Smith argued to jurors during her closing that White admitted telling a number of lies to police and others regarding the homicide.

As such, his credibility is suspect, according to Smith, who said Cox maintains White is the real killer.

Leon White III

Smith also reminded jurors that White had gunshot residue on his sleeve, and that he confirmed from the witness stand that he told his girlfriend he had killed Small.

"Who admits to killing someone unless you did it?" Smith asked, noting White acknowledged he testified against Cox hoping for consideration on his own murder charges.

"It benefits Leon White to point the finger at my client, and that's exactly what he did," Smith said. "It's a story he made up to try to get himself out of (trouble)."

'A bad guy': Although White was the prosecution's witness, Russell had nothing good to say about him during her closing argument either.

"Leon White ... is a terrible person. He's a bad guy," Russell said. "He was 100 percent an accomplice ... in the death of Ryan Small."

But Russell said that doesn't mean White's account shouldn't be considered by the jury. She urged jurors to "square" his testimony with physical evidence and independent witness statements.

Russell said the crux of White's testimony can be corroborated by doing so.

She also argued that more gunshot residue was found on Cox's clothing than on White's clothing, and that the gun used to kill Small was found in the house in the 100 block of South Hartley Street where Cox was living at the time.

Ryan Small was supposed to be one of the people targeted for CeaseFire York's call-in on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017, but he was gunned down on Jan. 15, 2017.

'Accidental' gunfire: Jurors also heard testimony from someone who claims she twice saw Cox in possession of that 9 mm handgun in 2016, and that both times the gun "accidentally" fired while in his pocket.

Russell also referenced Cox's 76-minute videotaped interview with York City detectives, in which he gave "umpteenth versions" of what happened that night.

"Where to begin? How many stories did he give?" Russell asked.

Cox repeatedly insisted on tape that he was in the South Hartley Street home where he was staying when he heard a crash, and only later found out the car crash was caused by a shooting.

Russell reminded jurors that others in the home at the time of the crash testified Cox wasn't there at the time of the crash. Testimony indicated Cox left the house with White.

More:York City murder defendant: 'I didn't shoot nobody, bro'

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More:Prosecutor: York man killed Ryan Small 'over a little bit of weed'

Trial-related shooting: On Wednesday afternoon, Cox's cousin was shot while walking down Clarke Avenue, an alley that runs alongside the York County Judicial Center.

The cousin, 32-year-old Derek Dorsey of Baltimore, suffered a gunshot wound to the leg following a confrontation outside the judicial center, according to York City officials. Police haven't publicly identified a motive in the shooting.

But Smith said it's her understanding that 19-year-old Matthew L. Hughes Jr. — one of Dorsey's accused shooters — is the stepbrother or half-brother of murder victim Small.

Police said Hughes and alleged accomplice Shyquel Folk, 15, fired on Dorsey at least 16 times.

Dorsey attended Cox's trial Wednesday morning, where presiding Common Pleas Judge Craig T. Trebilcock admonished both sides of the gallery for their conduct in the courtroom, which he indicated included talking, eye-rolling and shaking or nodding of heads.

On Friday, just before the verdict was announced, Trebilcock again warned the gallery that no outbursts would be tolerated.

"There's been enough nonsense regarding this trial outside the courtroom," he said. "This is not 'The Jerry Springer Show.'"

Cox, 30, and White, 28, both of York City, remain in York County Prison. White also is known as Ratiki Drakeford, according to court documents.

Cox will be back in court Friday, March 16, to plead guilty to a charge of being a convicted felon in illegal firearm possession. That charge was severed from his murder trial so the jury wouldn't be influenced by the fact that Cox is a felon, according to Russell and Smith.

— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.