Cookout ambush trial opens for 1 as case dismissed against 1

February 3, 2020 GMT

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Trial opened for one man as charges were dismissed against his co-defendant in the slayings of five people and an unborn baby at a western Pennsylvania cookout almost four years ago.

Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Edward Borkowski on Monday granted a defense motion to dismiss the case against 31-year-old Robert Thomas in the March 2016 killings in Pittsburgh’s Wilkinsburg suburb. After the dismissal, trial opened against his 33-year-old co-defendant, Cheron Shelton.

Authorities had alleged that Thomas opened fire on one side and Shelton then gunned down victims running onto a porch for safety. Prosecutors allege that the target, who survived, was a person Shelton believed was involved in the 2013 murder of a friend.

Prosecutors have announced their intention to seek capital punishment in the event of a first-degree murder conviction. The defense has contended that no physical evidence links the two men to the crime scene. Prosecutors alleged that cellphone data shows them in communication as well as in the area at the time.

Thomas’s defense sought dismissal after prosecutors decided against putting a key witness on the stand. Defense attorneys said the witness had offered testimony in other cases, was alleged to have confessed to a role in a 2013 drive-by shooting that killed a 15-month-old boy, and had been offered relocation and financial assistance.

The judge noted that prosecutors had attempted to use three cooperating jailhouse witnesses, but were left with none in the end. “They are treacherous waters, we know that from experience,” he said.

Deputy District Attorney Kevin Chernosky told the jury in his opening statement in Shelton’s case that it had been an unusually warm day that brought residents out for an impromptu barbecue. But he alleged that the defendant, tipped off to the gathering by social media posts, came there in search of revenge for the 2013 slaying.

“That Facebook post would be an invitation to murder,” he said. And after the gunfire, “all the hope of that spring day was gone, as well,” he said. He urged jurors to listen to the evidence and convict the defendant for what he called “a brazen, vengeful, callous act.”

Defense attorney Randall McKinney agreed that the mass shooting was a tragedy but said it was also tragic “that this young man, who played no role in what happened that night, is sitting here as a defendant.”

McKinney also said forensic evidence from the scene points to an unknown person, not his client. He also alleged in his opening statement that a police officer falsely provided a license plate number linking Shelton to the crime. Chernosky had said earlier that Shelton would have gotten away with the shooting if not for the officer.