COLUMBUS, Ga. (WRBL) — The state’s case against four men accused of killing a Columbus rapper in 2018 had been falling apart for two weeks.
Friday afternoon it all but collapsed when the judge acquitted two of the co-defendants before the jury ever got the case.
Judge David Emerson dismissed charges against two co-defendants, Tyree Smith, and Jonathan Swift, saying the state had not met the standard of even “slight” evidence.
Charges against Tommie Mullins Jr., and Dover Coppins remain and the jury will have to decide their fate after closing arguments on Monday.
William Kendrick and Mark Shelnutt/Tyree Smith’s attorney:
“Listen, y’all, you cannot trust the individual that has been caught so many times flip flopping their testimony under oath. And so, that’s what the state has to work with in regards to trying to pull this case together. And the judge commented that even though corroboration had to be slight, maybe he found it possibly to where the jury could find it on these other two gentlemen, but he used the word, slight.”
The defense is arguing that the state, led by Acting District Attorney, Sheneka Terry, failed to meet its burden of proof in the 2018 shooting death of rapper Branden Denson.
He then collected cell phone records of the co-defendants that had been introduced at trial and retired to chambers to continue considering a motion by the four defense attorneys to acquit Dover Coppins, Tommie Mullins Jr., Tyree Smith, and Jonathan Swift.
Emerson did not give a hint as to how long his deliberations could take. One clue it could be a while, the four co-defendants were moved off the ninth floor and into a holding cell inside the Government Center.
The state built its case around the testimony of star witness Eric Spencer – an accomplice in the case the defense says took a sweetheart deal to testify against the other four.
At first, Spencer told the jury of the plot to kill Branden Denson and steal 16 pounds of marijuana. Days later, Spencer went back on the stand and said he was lying the first time.
“Listen, y’all, you cannot trust the individual that has been caught so many times flip-flopping their testimony under oath,” said Smith’s attorney, William Kendrick, flanked by his co-counsel Mark Shelnutt. “And so, that’s what the state has to work within regards to trying to pull this case together. And the judge commented that even though corroboration had to be slight, maybe he found it possible to where the jury could find it on these other two gentlemen, but he used the word, slight.”
Swift’s defense attorney, Michael Eddings, offered praise for Emerson, who issued the rare ruling.
“The judge took his time, he reviewed the evidence, he reviewed the law, and he came back and ruled in our favor on a directed verdict which allowed my client to go free today and it’s just tremendous victory after two weeks of trial,” Eddings said.
And the cell phone records that the state was hoping would salvage the case helped the defense more than the prosecution.
The only evidence that had Smith and Swift in the Buena Vista Road Pizza Hut parking lot on April 6, 2018 was Spencer’s testimony.
Prior to Emerson’s ruling, the defense attorneys made powerful arguments on why the judge must rule in their favor and end the two-week trial.
Claiming the state failed to meet its burden of proof, attorneys for Dover Coppins, Tommie Mullins, Swift, and Smith asked the court to end the case before it can be sent to the jury.
The defense argued that the only evidence that the state had was the state’s star witness, Spencer.
Spencer then took the stand days later and recanted his story, throwing his entire testimony into turmoil.
Acting DA Sheneka Terry kept arguing that the jurors should be the ones who make the decision.
“At this point, it becomes a question for the jury, whether or not they believe Mr. Spencer,” Terry said.
That is not how the four defense attorneys saw it.
“Not only can Spencer’s testimony not be corroborated, it can’t be corroborated by him,” said Coppins’ attorney Shevon Thomas.
Kendrick picked apart the state’s case, saying there was no evidence that linked Smith to Denson’s death other than “the dubious” testimony of Spencer.
“This young man’s life is on the line,” Kendrick told the court. ‘There is no evidence to support his involvement in the incident at Pizza Hut.”
Eddings told the court that the only reason that Swift was on trial was that he showed up on Smith’s phone contact list.
“The state’s own evidence shows that Mr. Spencer was in a completely different location at the time it was supposed to happen,” Eddings argues. “Mrs. Hickey says the records show at no time Swift was at the Pizza Hut at the time of the incident.”
He then repeated the chorus the defense was using to attack Spencer and his credibility.
“One minute he says they were involved,” Eddings said. “The next minute they were not involved. He’s got a pattern of that.”
Eddings was referring to another April 2018 shooting death on Alta Vista Drive. Spencer was the star witness and that case fell apart. Spencer is still facing manslaughter charges in that case.
Perhaps the most telling exchange was between Emerson and the acting DA:
Emerson: How do threats Swift made to Spencer corroborate Spencer’s testimony.?
What is the independent evidence that corroborates Spencer?
Terry: “Mainly cell phone records.”
Emerson: “Cell phones don’t establish location. There is a broad range within each cell phone tower. Am I supposed to take a leap of faith that puts these people together?”
Eddings got up to make his argument and told the judge that Emerson had just made the defense’s case for him.
Jackson said, “Mr. Spencer basically has no testimony because he said he lied.”