Reginald Huff is a free man but a marked man.Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette
"It's like a nightmare to me," said Reginald Huff, who recently was acquitted of shooting and killing a man on the North Side.
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Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey Manning acquitted Huff of homicide this month. Manning, though, said in open court that Huff probably committed the drive-by shooting that killed Edward Howard, a paralyzed man who traveled North Side streets in his wheelchair and dabbled in the drug underworld.
The district attorney's staff simply failed to make its case against Huff, Manning said.
Because the judge branded him a man who most likely got away with murder, Huff said, even neighbors who had believed in him now wonder whether he killed Howard.
Huff, 29, said Manning's words haunt him. He contends that he is innocent, the victim of a sloppy police investigation that unjustly put him on trial and enabled Howard's killers to go free.
"The police tried to use me for a scapegoat to make it seem like they were doing their job," Huff said in an interview last week. "They just wasted a lot of taxpayers' money."
Pittsburgh homicide detectives declined repeated requests to discuss Howard's killing and their arrest of Huff.
Assistant District Attorney Stephie Kapourales, who prosecuted Huff, also declined to be interviewed. Instead, Mike Manko, a spokesman for prosecutor's office, said the right man was put on trial.
"We felt strongly about this case," Manko said. "We wouldn't change anything about the way it was presented."
Police and prosecutors, though, did not initially realize that whoever shot Howard poured nine bullets into the house and truck owned by Huff's sister, Nicole Beard. When Howard was killed Nov. 4, 2003, he was staying at her home.
Howard, 24, was hit by one of the nine gunshots as he sat on the stoop of her front door. Beard and her young daughter were in the house when the gunfire began.
"I'm not going to shoot up my sister's house, especially not with her and my niece inside," Huff said. "Plus, I don't have any violence on my rap sheet. I'm a drug dealer, a convicted drug dealer."
Huff has served about five years in prison for drug crimes. Free on parole when Howard was shot, Huff said he was some 10 blocks from his sister's house at the time. He acknowledges that he was hiding from police at the time because of warrants in a child-support case and for failing to check in with his parole officer.
Police arrested Huff on the parole violation 10 days after Howard's slaying. Huff soon learned he also was the suspect in Howard's killing, based on the claim of an addict and street criminal named Lenny Hogan.
After Hogan was arrested in a robbery, he said he had witnessed Howard's killing. Hogan told police that Huff, a man he'd known most his life, pulled the trigger.
Hogan testified that Huff, driving alone in a Dodge Caravan, rolled down Monterey Street, then stretched across the console and fired a gun through the passenger's window, snuffing out Howard's life.
Defense attorney Christopher Conrad punched holes in his story on cross-examination. All nine shell casings were found on the street. Had Huff or anybody else fired while sprawled across the front seat of a Caravan, Conrad said, the spent shells would have landed in the vehicle, not on the roadway.
In defiance of the physical evidence, Hogan testified that no vehicles were parked in front of the house when the shooting occurred. In fact, one bullet went through the windshield of Nicole Beard's truck, which was parked between the shooter and Howard.
Hogan, a self-described addict who testified that he was high when he witnessed the killing, said Howard was shot as he sat in a lawn chair. That claim also is at odds with the physical evidence: No blood trail was found by the chair, which was found folded and leaning against a wall.
The bullet that killed Howard entered his chest and exited a couple of inches higher through his back. Conrad said the trajectory was consistent with Howard rising from the front stoop as he tried to scramble inside to save himself.
Conrad said Hogan probably fabricated his story to help himself with police after he was arrested for failing to appear in a robbery case. "He never did any more time on the charge," Conrad said.
One other person, Janice Bowman, of the North Side, said she saw the shooting. Prosecutors did not call her as a witness, but the defense did. She told a story far different from Hogan's.
Bowman said the shots came from a dark, low-slung sedan, not a van. Two men were inside the sedan, Bowman said. The one on the passenger side held a handgun outside the window and fired. She could not identify either man.
The prosecution's other main witness against Huff was Allen Wade, his onetime cellmate at the county jail. Wade, who was facing consecutive five- to 10-year sentences for robbery, wrote a letter to the district attorney, saying Huff had admitted to killing Howard.
But Wade vacillated on his story, even telling a lawyer not involved with the case that Huff was innocent.
In the Allegheny County Courthouse, the prosecution of Huff became known among lawyers as "a no-lose case" for the district attorney's staff. With two criminals telling inconsistent stories, convicting Huff seemed improbable.
"It was such a weak case that, if you're a prosecutor and you win it, you're the next Vincent Bugliosi," Conrad said. "From the prosecution's standpoint, there was nothing to lose because nobody expected them to win."
Huff, who could have gone to prison for the rest of his life, said he saw the case as an abuse of power.
"They listened to a crackhead and a snitch," Huff said. "That's all they had."
With the exception of Bowman, whose testimony helped Huff, Manning said he found none of the witnesses believable. Huff did not testify.
Even though Manning found reasonable doubt, he could not bring himself to say Huff was not guilty. Indeed, the judge said, he thought Huff probably committed the killing, but prosecutors failed to prove it.
"I am reasonably satisfied, as I sit here, Mr. Huff, that you are morally guilty of this crime," Manning said.
Then he set Huff free.
Huff said he remained confused and upset by the verdict. If the judge thought so little of the prosecution's case, how could he be "morally certain" Huff was guilty?
Huff said he was trying to clean up his life. He said he hoped to become a plumber or construction worker, and that he planned to leave the state. The father of four, he said he was supporting his children as he looked for a fresh start.
"I may be something of a criminal, but I'm no deadbeat dad," Huff said.
As for Howard's slaying, Huff said he had no idea who did it.
Huff said Howard had two street names. One was "Gusto." The other was "The Rat," because Howard informed on a legion of drug dealers and street toughs.
Huff said a hundred people could have killed Howard. All he is certain of, he said, is that he is innocent.
Milan Simonich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1956.