Suspect makes plea deal in East Liberty homicide

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The morning's testimony had passed, and it wasn't looking good for William Higginbotham-Bey.

A witness at the trial's opening day yesterday identified Mr. Higginbotham-Bey as one of two robbers who entered her East Liberty home May 30, 2002. The crime resulted in the killing of 20-year-old James "Onion" Malloy.

There were questions about who pulled the trigger -- because both men wore masks -- but Mr. Higginbotham-Bey faced a second-degree murder conviction and a life sentence if jurors determined that he took part in a felony resulting in a death.

So, over the lunch break, the 27-year-old East Liberty man struck a deal.

Mr. Higginbotham-Bey pleaded guilty to third-degree murder, a plea contingent on his testimony against co-defendant Zachary Blair.

Mr. Higginbotham-Bey, who also pleaded guilty to robbery, conspiracy and aggravated assault, will not be sentenced until he testifies against Mr. Blair. Both sides did not agree on a sentence, so Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning will decide it. Mr. Higginbotham-Bey's attorney, John Elash, said he will ask for about 15 years.

Mr. Blair, 23, of East Liberty, was charged with the murder at first, after Mr. Higginbotham-Bey told police Mr. Blair was the trigger man.

But charges were dismissed against Mr. Blair at a June 2002 coroner's inquest for lack of evidence, because investigators decided to charge Mr. Higginbotham-Bey as well, and his testimony was the crucial evidence against Mr. Blair.

Pittsburgh homicide Detective Steve Hitchings said he expected to obtain a warrant for Mr. Blair's arrest last night.

Mr. Blair won't be hard to find. He's serving a 7-to-14-year prison sentence at SCI Rockview for a 2003 murder.

According to prosecutors, Mr. Blair and Mr. Higginbotham-Bey went to the home of Nancy Mosley, just blocks from their East Liberty homes, to rob Mr. Malloy.

The men were wearing masks -- one of which was a replica of the mask from the "Scream" movies.

Ms. Mosley, who broke down sobbing several times, said the two armed men arrived at her back door demanding to see Mr. Malloy. She testified that the one wearing the Scream mask shot Mr. Malloy in a struggle. Ms. Mosley identified "Zachary" as the shooter.

But, as Assistant District Attorney Steven M. Stadtmiller laid out in his opening argument, it didn't matter if Mr. Higginbotham-Bey was the killer or not. He could still be convicted of second-degree murder.

"Accomplices are responsible for the actions of accomplices," Mr. Stadtmiller said.

Mr. Elash's defense rested on Mr. Higginbotham-Bey's mental capacity -- or lack thereof. He's been in and out of mental hospitals since his arrest, and though he had been declared competent to stand trial, Mr. Elash argued that Mr. Higginbotham-Bey was an unwitting accomplice.

Detective Hitchings said in addition to Mr. Higginbotham-Bey's testimony, prosecutors will use another witness and DNA evidence to tie Mr. Blair to the getaway car used in the robbery.


Correction/Clarification: (Published Feb. 26, 2009) A witness in a murder trial said only "Zachary" in describing who shot James "Onion" Malloy. This story as originally published Feb. 25, 2009 about the trial and subsequent guilty plea of another defendant in the case incorrectly said the witness also used Zachary's last name in her identification. She only identified him by his first name.

Daniel Malloy can be reached at dmalloy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1731.


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