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Death-penalty double-murder trial: Court clashes, gag order
The third day of Paul Jackson Henry III's death-penalty double-murder trial started the way Day 2 ended — with defense attorney Farley Holt meticulously and exhaustively cross-examining the prosecution's first eyewitness.
Amy Eller spent more than four hours total on Monday, May 14, and Tuesday morning being grilled by Holt about details of her trial testimony, primarily whether it jibed with her police statement and with testimony she gave at Henry's preliminary hearing back in 2016.
Several times, presiding Common Pleas Judge Michael E. Bortner stopped Holt to tell him that his attempts to impeach Eller's credibility were being done improperly. A defiant Holt shot back that he's allowed to lead prosecution witnesses and has latitude in his efforts to impeach.
That prompted an apparently frustrated Bortner to review in open court the rules of witness impeachment.
The York Dispatch was unable to speak with Holt or co-counsel Suzanne Smith about their impeachment strategy because on Tuesday morning Bortner announced he has issued a gag order for attorneys and subpoenaed witnesses — including witnesses who have already finished testifying and have been released from their subpoenas.
"If there's any violation of that, I intend to enforce it strictly," Bortner warned from the bench.
It's unclear what prompted the judge's concern.
It could be because local newspapers are reporting facts the jury likely won't hear — including that Henry's wife and co-defendant, 32-year-old Veronique Henry, committed suicide a day after being committed to York County Prison on murder charges, or that she was a convicted heroin dealer.
The defense maintains it was Veronique Henry who did all the shooting. Eller's version of events squarely contradicts that theory.
Inconsistencies: Holt's rigorous cross-examination uncovered several inconsistencies in Eller's testimony:
On Monday, she testified the Henrys fled the scene through Cheeks' front door, but at the preliminary hearing she testified it was the back door.
At trial, she said it was Veronique Henry who collected and took their cellphones on the order of her husband. At the preliminary hearing, she testified the Henrys made her son's 16-year-old friend collect the phones.
Eller testified at trial that although Veronique Henry had a gun, she never fired it. At the preliminary hearing she testified, "I think she shot a round too ... I'm assuming she shot too."
And she also testified at trial that there was one final shot fired by Henry. In her police statement and at the preliminary hearing, she said there were two final shots.
But Eller didn't waver on the crux of her testimony — that she heard a knock on the door that was answered by Danielle Taylor, then heard a loud pop, then saw Henry walking toward the living room from the kitchen while firing a large-caliber handgun at Foday Cheeks, who was unarmed.
The allegations: First assistant district attorney Jen Russell has told jurors the Henrys knocked on the door of Cheeks' Brown Road home in Fawn Township the night of Sept. 13, 2016, and that Henry fatally shot Taylor through the throat when the 26-year-old Spring Grove woman answered the door.
Russell has said that Henry shot Cheeks seven times during the initial burst of gunfire, then dragged Cheeks to another room where he fired "one last finishing shot into Foday's head."
Henry then searched the house for drugs and money while Veronique Henry held Eller, Eller's teenage son, his friend and a woman named Coren Clymer at gunpoint in Cheeks' living room, according to Russell.
The Henrys were captured the next day after a police chase in Dauphin County. A trove of physical evidence related to the homicides was found in the Henrys' car, Russell said in her opening statement.
That includes the guns that killed Cheeks, with Henry's DNA on them and Cheeks' DNA splattered on them, Russell said, as well as Cheeks' wallet and items belonging to the victims who survived.
Son takes stand: Eller's son, James Gregoire, was the second eyewitness called to testify by the prosecution.
Now 16 years old, James was 14 when he saw Cheeks fatally shot.
"He was a very good friend of mine," James told jurors on Tuesday, adding the two competitively played video games.
At Russell's prompting, James recounted what he remembers from the day of the double homicide.
He said when there was a knock on the back door, Cheeks asked Taylor to answer it, which she did.
"We heard a loud shot and we seen (Henry) come in ... and shoot Foday instantly," the teen testified.
James said he and Cheeks were sitting next to each other on the living-room couch when Cheeks jumped up to investigate the loud noise. But before he could get to the kitchen, Henry walked toward him.
Sparks flew: "Foday pushed me to the floor so that way I wouldn't get hurt," James testified, adding he then saw Henry firing at Cheeks and Cheeks saying "Ow! No no no."
"I seen the sparks flying out of the gun. ... I knew he was hit," James said. "He fell to the floor almost instantly. After that, the man drug him to the back room."
The teen testified he could no longer see what was happening.
"We heard one more loud shot and that was it," James told jurors.
He testified that Veronique Henry came in behind her husband and pointed a gun at them, but "said we would all be OK."
That's in contrast to Henry, who "was screaming very violently," James said.
It was Smith, not Holt, who cross-examined James on Tuesday afternoon. She finished up her cross-examination in about an hour.
Prosecution testimony is expected to continue Wednesday with the two other surviving eyewitnesses, the forensic pathologist who performed autopsies on the victims and at least one more state police trooper, Russell told the judge on Tuesday afternoon.
Juror dismissed: At day's end, Judge Bortner dismissed Juror No.1 with the agreement of both the prosecution and defense, because the man had a "distraction" at home, according to the judge.
Henry, 41, of East Manchester Township, is charged with two counts each of first-, second- and third-degree murder, plus robbery. He's also charged with fleeing police and aggravated assault for a police chase the next day that ended with the Henrys being arrested.
At the time of his death, Cheeks was free on $25,000 bail, charged with two felony counts of dealing heroin. The York County Drug Task Force raided his home in May 2016 and seized heroin and packaging materials, according to court documents.
— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at email@example.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.