Douglas County prosecutors on Tuesday said that they would not seek a second first-degree murder trial against a 24-year-old Kansas City, Kan., man who was accused of shooting and killing Lawrence hip-hop artist Anthony Vital.
Durrell Jones was scheduled to face his second trial in the case Monday after a jury failed to reach a unanimous verdict, but District Attorney Charles Branson cited issues with the credibility of co-defendant Major Edwards Jr., 31, of Lawrence, the state’s key witness in the first trial.
“When we presented our case at the first trial, the primary evidence we relied upon and which we expected the jury to rely upon was the testimony of (Edwards). Since the time of that testimony, we received evidence which led us to believe that testimony is not credible,” Branson said Tuesday afternoon. “Given those circumstances, there is no ethical way we could proceed to trial with the evidence we have and expect to prove our case beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Prosecutors had accused Jones of shooting Vital, 28, on Oct. 14, 2006, in a rural driveway west of Lawrence to collect on a drug debt. A property owner discovered the body the next day, and after a lengthy investigation Edwards and Jones, who were both in federal custody in other cases, were charged with Vital’s murder in 2008.
Edwards in March 2010 pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter, and he testified that he felt remorse for leading Jones to Vital that night. But Edwards said Jones had pulled a gun on both him and Vital, forced him to drive a car the men were traveling in west of Lawrence and then shot Vital once Edwards stopped the car.
A story in Tuesday’s Journal-World detailed new allegations prosecutors had recently notified Edwards’ attorney, Napoleon Crews, about. A former jail mate, Joe Hunter, alleged Edwards said he was the one who actually shot Vital. Edwards in hand-written letters to Chief District Judge Robert Fairchild has denied he talked with Hunter about his case and also wrote that he still intended to testify against Jones.
“I commend the district attorney's office for finally making this decision,” defense attorney John Kerns said. “I think it would have been a tremendous waste of time and community resources to suffer through the difficult process of a week-long jury trial where the inevitable result would have been an acquittal.”
The allegations from Hunter were made public in a July 18 hearing in which Edwards unsuccessfully tried to withdraw his guilty plea in the case. Edwards faces 18 years in prison for his voluntary manslaughter conviction, and prosecutors had agreed to ask Fairchild to trim four years from Edwards’ sentence in exchange for cooperation in the Jones case.
Branson said prosecutors will now oppose any departure from the 18 years because they don’t believe Edwards’ testimony was truthful. Kerns said the defense had also tracked down for the second trial another former inmate, Demario Eatman, who in the 2008 preliminary hearing alleged Edwards confessed to him that he pulled the trigger.
Kerns in the first trial attacked Edwards’ credibility, saying there was evidence Edwards had bragged about killing Vital in prison and even written rap lyrics about it. Edwards has contended in his own testimony and letters to the judge that other inmates, including Hunter and Eatman, were lying to try to get time cut from their own sentences.
Prosecutors have asked that the case against Jones be dismissed without prejudice. Branson said if new information comes to light implicating Jones in the killing, his office could refile charges. There is no statute of limitations in Kansas for a murder charge.
In the March trial, prosecutors Amy McGowan and David Melton, both chief assistant district attorneys, argued that evidence showed that only Jones had the murder weapon in his hands that night, and they also relied heavily on cellphone records to try to pinpoint that both Edwards and Jones were in the area that night where Vital’s body was later found. Prosecutors said Jones’ DNA was found on a Neosporin cap and an unsmoked Moore cigarette found near the body.
But Kerns argued that prosecutors could not prove how the items got to the scene, and he said there was testimony that Edwards had been driving several people around Lawrence that day and the items could have fallen out of the car.
Jones is currently serving a six-year prison sentence in a federal drug case, and, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, his projected release date on that charge is March 31, 2012.
Edwards’ sentencing on the voluntary manslaughter conviction is scheduled for Aug. 22, according to court records. Branson did commend the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office for its investigation in the case.
“The exact truth of what occurred in connection with the murder of Anthony Vital may never be known at this point, but we have no doubt that Edwards and Jones played an active role in what happened,” Branson said. “We also do not doubt Major Edwards knows what happened, but his various and contradictory accounts to others make the use of his testimony too unreliable for us to ethically present to a jury.”