Family rallies over retrial of Hazelwood slaying

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About two dozen people gathered on the steps of the City-County Building Wednesday morning, trying to rally support for a man they say is innocent but who has spent the last 18 years in prison.

Jury selection for the retrial of Terrell Johnson, 37, will begin today, with testimony slated to start Tuesday before Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Donald E. Machen.

Rally for Terrell Johnson

Family and friends rally for convicted murderer Terrell Johnson. (Video by Nate Guidry; 8/29/2012)

Johnson is charged with the July 21, 1994, slaying of Verna Robinson, 20, of Hazelwood, who was shot as she walked down Almeda Street late at night.

Since then, Johnson, who is being held at the State Correctional Institution at Greene, has proclaimed his innocence. His family and friends have worked to prove it.

PG VIDEO

Saundra Cole, his mother, said the rally Wednesday was designed to bring awareness to the public that there are people incarcerated for crimes they didn't commit.

"It's real," she said. "Terrell is innocent."

In 2008, Johnson won a retrial after he presented evidence from a new witness. That man, Kenneth Robinson, told the court at an evidentiary hearing that the key witness against Johnson in the first trial, Evelyn "Dolly" McBryde, could not have seen the defendant shoot Ms. Robinson because she was a block away smoking crack cocaine at the time.

Ms. Cole said that in 2009 after the retrial had been granted, the district attorney's office offered her son a deal to plead guilty in exchange for the time he'd already served in prison.

He would have been released. But Johnson turned it down.

"I would say it's all about faith and believing," she said. "When you believe in God, you don't have to take a deal from nobody."

The district attorney's office had no comment on the pending case.

Police investigating the Robinson shooting in 1994 knew early on that three people had been involved.

One witness was able to identify two: Harold Cabbagestalk and Dorian Moorefield, who were both in a local gang called the Hazelwood Mob. The third person the woman described as being between 13 and 14 years old.

Johnson, who was 19 at the time, was initially considered to be a suspect because he was facing charges that he assaulted Ms. Robinson weeks earlier.

She was scheduled to testify against him the day she was killed at a preliminary hearing that was postponed. Ms. Robinson also was scheduled that same day to testify against a member of the Hazelwood Mob about a drive-by shooting. That case, too, was postponed.

Johnson told police he had alibi witnesses and believed that he was in the clear.

But 21/2 weeks after Ms. Robinson was killed, Ms. McBryde came forward after she was caught for shoplifting at Century III Mall. She told police she had information on the shooting, and five months later, after a stint in rehab, she identified Johnson as the third person involved.

At his first trial before Judge Lawrence J. O'Toole, Johnson was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Johnson claims his defense attorney, James DePasquale, failed to call a number of witnesses at trial who could have provided an alibi for him.

During subsequent appeals, Mr. DePasquale admitted he had been ineffective during the trial and that his investigator failed to properly examine the crime scene.

Johnson's two co-defendants were found not guilty in the slaying. Cabbagestalk was convicted of a conspiracy charge, but Mr. Moorefield was acquitted entirely.

Following the first trial, Judge O'Toole ordered a new trial for Johnson based on his attorney's ineffectiveness. However, that was overturned in a 2-1 opinion by the state Superior Court.

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Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.


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