One twin held, one released in killing of man on N. Side

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The slight 9-year-old boy stood on a chair in the courtroom so he was eye-to-eye with the prosecutor, raised his hand and swore to tell the truth.


Darrell Sapp, Post-GazetteCynthia Carey talks about the judge's decision to hold, Devon Knox, 17, one of her identical twin sons for trial in the shooting death of Jehru Donaldson on the North Side on July 8.
Click photo for larger image.

Then, coaxed along yesterday by questions from Deputy District Attorney Bruce Beemer, the boy described in a quiet voice how twin brothers on the North Side accosted his aunt's boyfriend before one fatally shot him.

Based on the boy's testimony during the preliminary hearing, District Judge Richard G. Opiela held Devon Knox, 17, of Perry South for trial on homicide, robbery and a firearms charge in the shooting July 8 of Jehru Donaldson, 18.

Judge Opiela dismissed a conspiracy charge against Devon Knox, and then dismissed all charges -- including homicide -- against his identical twin, Jovon Knox.

Patrick Thomassey, Jovon Knox's court-appointed defense attorney, argued that charges against his client should be dropped because even though the brothers were allegedly together during the shooting, the witness said only one of the twins spoke to Mr. Donaldson and only one twin shot him -- and neither was his client.

Merely being present at the scene of a crime is not enough to be held culpable, Mr. Thomassey argued.

Mr. Beemer countered that the brothers acted in concert to rob Mr. Donaldson of the car he was driving, approached the victim together and ran away from the crime scene together.

"The fact that he's not the person who pulls out the gun does not relieve him of criminal responsibility," Mr. Beemer said.

Judge Opiela sided with Mr. Thomassey.

"It's not certain that the brother, that is, Jovon, wasn't making statements, that is, 'Let's get out of here.' There were certain aspects that were just missing, and that's why I felt even in the light most favorable to the commonwealth, there just wasn't anything there," Judge Opiela said in an interview. "Running away from the scene of a crime does not necessarily mean complicity or some sort of conspiracy."

Mr. Donaldson's family and Mr. Beemer declined comment as they filed out of the courtroom in the Pittsburgh Municipal Courts Building.

Mr. Donaldson, an Oliver High School graduate who planned to attend Edinboro University, was parked in front of his girlfriend's house, waiting to take her nephews to a Pirates game when he was shot in the head. Family, friends and police described Mr. Donaldson as an innocent victim.

The boy, who is in the Pittsburgh police witness protection program and is not being identified at the request of the prosecution, said he watched from a front porch in the 1700 block of Brighton Place as the twins approached Mr. Donaldson around 1:45 p.m. Mr. Donaldson sat in the driver's seat of his father's car with the window down.

He said he recognized the twins because his father, a barber, had cut their hair at least once before.

"Is this your car?" the boy said he heard Devon Knox ask. Then Mr. Knox lifted his shirt to expose a handgun. "Get out of the car," he said Mr. Knox demanded.

Mr. Donaldson pushed the gun away and the car started forward. But the boy said Devon Knox ran forward and fired one shot at his aunt's beau with a silver gun. He died the next day in the hospital.

Asked whether he could tell which brother had the gun, the boy initially said he did not know. But then he identified the twin sitting closest to him. Judge Opiela had the suspect stand up so he could personally check the man's jail identification bracelet. It was Devon Knox.

Asked how he could tell one twin from the other, the boy said Devon Knox has lighter skin.

Cynthia Carey, the mother of the twins, said she was happy that charges against one of her sons were dropped.

Devon's attorney, Veronica Brestensky of the Allegheny County Office of Conflict Counsel, applauded the witness for being willing to testify in a homicide case, but questioned how he could differentiate between identical twins whom he hardly knew.

"It's just ridiculous," Ms. Brestensky said, echoing comments she made in court. There, after she probed how the boy identified her client as the shooter, she said, "It comes down to whether he knows who's who or whether he's just picking the guy closest to him."

Judge Opiela also commended the 9-year-old for testifying. He said he thought the boy did an "exemplary" job.

"We can't get 29- and 39-year-olds to stand up, but a 9-year-old came forward and testified," Judge Opiela said.


Jonathan D. Silver can be reached at jsilver@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1962.


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