A Brushton man serving life in prison for a murder outside a Lincoln-Lemington bar 16 years ago will likely get a new trial because of "unprofessional errors" by his public defender, a federal appellate court ruled Thursday.
The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted a writ of habeas corpus for Taibu Grant, 40, who is serving life at SCI Pittsburgh for the January 1997 killing of Keith Gilliam, 28, of East Liberty outside the Where It's At bar.
Three others were wounded in the Jan. 9 shooting.
The ruling means the case will return to Allegheny County Common Pleas Court for retrial.
The three-judge panel said Mr. Grant's lawyer, Sumner Parker, failed to thoroughly investigate the criminal background of the government's main witness, Christopher Moore.
The jurors never heard that Mr. Moore was on parole at the time for previous convictions, a fact that could have influenced their willingness to believe him, especially since he was the only witness to identify Mr. Grant as the gunman. No physical evidence tied Mr. Grant to the scene.
"Without Moore, it is difficult for us to discern any basis for even charging Grant with the crime," the appellate judges said.
Mr. Moore didn't see the shooting but told the jury that he heard Mr. Grant admit to doing it, contradicting the testimony of several witnesses -- including one of the wounded -- who said Mr. Grant was not the shooter.
"Because of [Parker's] unreasonably deficient performance here, the jury was never informed of Moore's parole status" and couldn't draw conclusions as to his reliability, the appellate court wrote. "Moore's credibility would have been significantly impugned but for [Parker's] unprofessional errors."
Mr. Parker could not be reached Thursday. Roger Cox, Mr. Grant's lawyer in the federal appeal, said Mr. Parker has not returned repeated messages.
Mr. Cox was on his way Thursday to meet with his client at the prison to give him the news.
Mr. Grant had insisted all along that he was not the shooter. After the verdict was read on Sept. 23, 1997, he shouted to the jury, "You all just convicted an innocent man," told the jurors they were going to hell and kicked a metal podium as deputies struggled to control him.
In prison he embarked on the two-tiered appeals process, exhausting his state appeals in 2009 and then pursuing relief in the federal system through a habeas petition.
The appellate judges had harsh words for others besides his lawyer.
Although they rejected Mr. Grant's argument that prosecutors were guilty of misconduct, the judges blasted Assistant District Attorney Kenneth Haber for telling the jury that Mr. Moore had no reason to lie.
"The commonwealth made these assertions despite the fact that Moore did have a very compelling reason to lie" because he thought he might get favorable treatment in his own case, the judges said.
The district attorney's office had no comment.
The appellate panel also criticized U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert Mitchell, who had initially denied Mr. Grant's habeas petition.
Mr. Parker had failed to locate and call two defense witnesses, Kim Oden and Mark Gee, who both later provided affidavits that Mr. Grant was not the shooter. Judge Mitchell ruled that their statements essentially didn't matter because they were "cumulative" in that other witnesses said the same thing.
But the appellate panel said their testimony would have been critical, especially since one of them also contradicted Mr. Moore's description of the clothing the shooter wore that night.
The district attorney's office has 120 days to decide whether to retry Mr. Grant.
Torsten Ove: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-231-0132.