Jurors return guilty verdict in attempted homicide trial

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A pit bull, a basketball and a bag of dog excrement — those were some components of an attempted homicide trial in which a jury returned a guilty verdict Thursday night.

The jury found Matthew Henkel, 35, of Mount Oliver guilty of aggravated assault and attempted homicide after deliberating for about two hours, spokesman for the Allegheny County district attorney’s office Mike Manko wrote in an email Thursday night.

Testimony had ended earlier in the day in a trial to determine if Mr. Henkel shot Jamal Dixon, then 15, multiple times, critically injuring him, in self-defense or if he intended to kill the teenager after they argued in August about the Trayvon Martin case.

On Aug. 15, according to a criminal complaint, Mr. Henkel saw Jamal arguing in the 500 block of Elizabeth Street in Mount Oliver with a neighbor, Jacob Morgan, 15, about whether Jacob’s basketball had damaged Jamal’‍s car. Mr. Henkel noticed the confrontation from down the street and got involved.

Either Jamal or Mr. Henkel brought up Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old Florida student who was shot and killed in 2012 after a confrontation with neighborhood watch member George Zimmerman.

The prosecution and defense both agreed that Mr. Henkel shot Jamal, but they disagreed on who was the aggressor and whether self-defense applies in the case.

“Jamal was the one who set this whole scenario in motion that led to his own shooting,” defense attorney Robert Vincler said. “Jamal gets upset to the point that he was going to go over and at least smear dog [feces] in my client’s face.” Witnesses said Jamal had a bag of dog feces in his hand.

Police said Mr. Henkel, who is white, told them that “he feared he would be assaulted by the black male and his pit bull,” which was nearby.

The prosecutor, Rachel Fleming, said Mr. Henkel had ample opportunity to walk away from the conflict but did not and that he also had a cell phone, which he later used to call 911. She said Jamal at one point raised a hand in either defense or surrender. One of the bullets went through his arm, showing he was trying to protect himself, she said.

She also said that if the pit bull had presented a threat to Mr. Henkel, he could have shot the dog instead of Jamal.

“Why do you shoot the assailant with the bag of poop? You shoot the dog that is going to eat you and kill you,” she said.

Max Radwin: mradwin@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1280.

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