Jury sent home, hasn't reached full verdict in Mount Wolf homicide
After more than three hours of deliberations Thursday, a York County jury deliberating the fate of accused murderer Edia "Richie" Lawrence have called it a night.
"We have agreed on several charges but need time to think about the others," jurors wrote in a note read aloud in court at 6:25 p.m. Thursday.
About an hour prior to that, jurors asked in a note whether they could go home, but presiding Common Pleas Judge Harry M. Ness told them to stay at it a little longer. Ness later sent jurors home and instructed them to return at 9 a.m. Friday.
On Thursday, minutes after a forensic biologist's testimony tied Lawrence to the March 25, 2017, fatal beating of Ahshantianna Ali Johnson outside her Mount Wolf home, Lawrence took the witness stand and proclaimed his innocence.
"I just want you guys to know I did not kill Shanti. I was not there," Lawrence told jurors Thursday as he read from a statement that had been reviewed by his attorneys. "If I committed this crime, where are the surrounding facts?"
Known as "Shanti," the 19-year-old Johnson suffered blunt-force trauma to her head, hands and arms, as well as multiple fractures, swelling, bruising and hemorrhaging to her face and brain that left her unconscious until her death five days after the attack, trial testimony revealed. Testimony suggested she was attacked with a baseball bat.
Lawrence's theory of the crime is a version of prosecutors', who allege Johnson was picking up drug proceeds from marijuana dealers for Lawrence after he fronted weed to those dealers and that she kept the last cash pickup of about $3,000.
Prosecution witness Shaun Whack testified Wednesday that Lawrence called him after Johnson had made the cash pickup to confirm she'd actually done it, then told Whack that "he was going to smack the s— out of her for playing with his money."
About a week after Johnson's slaying, Lawrence broached the subject again, according to Whack: "He told me the job was done. He said it got handled."
But Lawrence testified that Johnson was picking up money from dealers to give to Lawrence, who would later deliver the drugs to them. He blamed Johnson's homicide on Whack. There was no evidence at the scene, DNA or otherwise, to suggest Whack was involved in the homicide, according to trial testimony.
Blamed witness: Lawrence claimed Johnson called him and told him she'd stolen money from Whack.
"I basically begged her (not to)," he testified.
Lawrence told jurors Johnson responded, "F— them. If they want problems, send them to my location."
But according to prosecution witnesses, Johnson and Lawrence were no longer in contact. State Trooper James Welch testified earlier in the week that phone records show one of Lawrence's cellphones tried unsuccessfully to contact Johnson's phone more than 200 times between March 19 and 22, 2017, but never tried to call after Johnson was attacked.
Witness Dakota Gilbeau testified Lawrence asked him to obtain Johnson's new cellphone number for him, and also said that Lawrence had him go to Johnson's home not long before her death to see if she was home. Gilbeau said Lawrence told him Johnson owed him money.
Lawrence, 21, told jurors that Whack called him, desperate and angry.
"It barely had nothing to do with me," he said, and claimed he was in New York City, working.
"I've been scared for the last three years," he told them. "It's my life on the line. I just wanna go home."
DNA match: Prior to Lawrence's testimony, forensic biologist Jennifer Sears of NMS Labs in Montgomery County told jurors that a face mask either dropped or discarded in Johnson's yard near where she collapsed contained DNA that matched Lawrence's.
The chance of the DNA belonging to someone else is one in 7 trillion, she said, noting that the world population is only about 7 billion.
Duct tape left behind at the scene also contained DNA that matched Lawrence's DNA, according to Sears' testimony, and again the chance it could belong to someone else was one in many trillion.
Johnson's mother, Noemi Capo, has testified that she recognized Lawrence as being one of three masked home-invasion robbers who terrorized her, beat her dog and stole property minutes before Johnson's homicide.
Phone call: York County Deputy Cpl. Gary Landis testified that when Lawrence was in the county's central booking unit after being arraigned on homicide charges, he told Landis he needed to call his mother. During that call, Lawrence told the person on the other end of the line to get rid of a PlayStation 4 controller he is accused of taking from Johnson's home.
During closing arguments, New York City defense attorney Paul Hirsch told jurors they can't believe the DNA evidence, suggesting the lab that did the testing would give prosecutors the results they wanted, apparently to ensure they keep getting more work.
Hirsch said Whack lied and suggested Landis wasn't being truthful either. He said Capo was mistaken in her identification of his client.
But senior deputy prosecutor David Maisch told jurors they had all they needed to convict Lawrence — DNA evidence, cellphone call and location records, Capo's identification and the testimony of witnesses who said Lawrence spoke to them about Johnson taking his money.
The background: Lawrence remains in York County Prison without bail, charged with first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit that offense, second-degree murder, robbery, burglary and related offenses.
The Bronx man was 18 at the time of Johnson's homicide. He previously came to York County to live with his aunt in the Mount Wolf area and attend Northeastern High School.
That's where he and Johnson met. They dated on and off for a couple of years, her mother has said, but were split up at the time Johnson was killed.
Lawrence's alleged accomplices in the homicide remain at large, prosecutors have said.
About 2:15 a.m. March 25, 2017, three armed, masked men entered the home Johnson shared with her mother and started stealing property, according to testimony.
One of the men threatened Capo with a baseball bat and a knife, demanding she call her daughter and have her come home. Capo told jurors that man was Lawrence.
Capo eventually reached Johnson by phone and told her she needed to come home because there was a family emergency, documents state.
Capo said she escaped the home-invasion robbery by pretending she needed to use the bathroom and fleeing out the back door instead. That's the same time Johnson returned home and was fatally attacked in her yard, according to testimony.
— Reach senior crime reporter Liz Evans Scolforo at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.