Mass. Street triple murder trial called off: Judge declares mistrial before jury is picked

photo by: Nick Krug

From left, defendants Anthony L. Roberts Jr., Ahmad M. Rayton and Dominique J. McMillon sit during a joint preliminary hearing, Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018, for charges related to a October 2017 triple homicide on Massachusetts Street.

UPDATED STORY: 10:52 a.m. Friday

Each defendant in downtown triple murder case will now have his own trial

Story updated 8:26 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018:

In the middle of the voir dire process while the lead defendant’s attorney was questioning potential jurors, a judge declared a mistrial and called off the downtown Lawrence triple murder trial on Thursday.

The high-profile trial started Monday with jury selection, and had been scheduled to last two weeks. Three Topeka men charged with murder and other crimes from the October 1, 2017, quintuple shooting on Massachusetts Street were to face a jury as a group, each with his own lawyer.

However, the trial never got that far; a jury was never selected.

Around 3:15 p.m. Thursday, almost four full days into the jury selection process, Douglas County District Court Judge Sally Pokorny told the courtroom that, because of a legal matter — which she did not explain — she was declaring a mistrial and everyone could go home.

Roughly 90 remaining potential jurors flowed out of the courtroom and left. Several questioned by the Journal-World said they didn’t know what prompted the mistrial.

Pokorny, through her office staff, declined to offer specifics following the potential jurors’ dismissal. District Attorney Charles Branson also declined to comment on his way out of the courtroom, as did all three defendants’ attorneys.

The defendants and attorneys will return to court Friday morning to discuss the next steps, likely rescheduling the trial or even splitting up the defendants for separate trials.

Pokorny said in the courtroom that her initial thought was to try defendant Anthony L. Roberts Jr., 21, who is charged with all three murders and one attempted murder, separately from his two co-defendants.

It was Roberts’ attorney, Topeka-based Jennifer Chaffee, who was at the front of the room questioning potential jurors just before Pokorny declared the mistrial. Chaffee was the second of three defense attorneys to have their turns leading voir dire, the questioning process.

Branson raised objections — which the judge sustained — to several of Chaffee’s questions, including on the topics of how Kansas law defines self-defense, what charges her client was facing and how long his sentence could be if convicted, one potential juror told the Journal-World. Shanna Shafer said she did not know what caused the mistrial but that Chaffee seemed “flustered,” and the potential jurors weren’t responding well to her.

After one objection by Branson, the attorneys conferred with the judge at the bench, and then the conversation moved into the judge’s chambers, Shafer said. She said after about 20 minutes, the judge and attorneys returned and Pokorny announced the mistrial.

Roberts’ co-defendants facing lesser charges are 23-year-old Ahmad M. Rayton, represented by appointed attorney Michael Clarke, and 20-year-old Dominique J. McMillon, represented by appointed attorney J.C. Gilroy.

Both Clarke and Gilroy previously raised concerns about their clients getting a fair trial, and pointed to Chaffee as the reason.

The final pretrial hearing, late last week, was tense.

Chaffee had filed a motion to disqualify Branson and Chief Assistant District Attorney David Melton from the case. While arguing her point in court, she accused the DAs of “bullying” her, committing prosecutorial misconduct and losing “all sight of justice.” Branson refuted her claims, saying Chaffee was the one misrepresenting things to the court and unnecessarily taking legal matters personally.

At that hearing, in a late-hour attempt to get the defendants split up for their trials, Gilroy seconded Clarke when Clarke said he feared jurors would view the three clients and lawyers as a “defense team” instead of considering them — and their courtroom styles — separately.

The judge did not disqualify the DAs, nor did she agree to sever the trial at that time.

Already this week’s jury selection process had been of unprecedented length and magnitude, at least for Douglas County District Court.

Roughly 200 potential jurors had been called to ensure there would be enough people to pick from to get a jury of 12, plus four alternates, for the case.

It carried high-stakes criminal charges: three murders and multiple attempted murders. It was high-profile, having occurred in a big crowd in the middle of Lawrence’s beloved entertainment district. And it was high-complexity, with thousands of pages of investigatory files, hours of video evidence and hundreds of tips to police. According to pretrial filings, at least 85 people — including nearly three dozen from the Lawrence Police Department alone — were subpoenaed for the trial.

One of the defendants, McMillon, has now been in jail potentially longer than he would be imprisoned if convicted of all his charges.

Late Thursday, with the trial decidedly delayed, McMillon’s attorney asked for a personal-recognizance bond.

Prosecutors opposed that, citing the nature and severity of the case at hand, but said that if he were released, they wanted him to stay out of Lawrence. Pokorny didn’t rule on McMillon’s bond, saying she would do so Friday.

Coverage: Downtown Lawrence triple murder case and trial

• Nov. 7, 2018 — Still no jury after 3 days of jury selection for downtown Lawrence triple murder trial

• Nov. 6, 2018 — Jury selection spills into third day for Massachusetts Street triple murder trial; media coverage of high-profile case factors into questioning

• Nov. 5 — About 170 potential jurors fill courthouse to begin selection process for downtown Lawrence triple murder trial

• Nov. 1 — Murder defendant’s attorney, DAs clash in ‘cringeworthy’ final hearing before Mass. Street trial

• Oct. 31 — In last-minute filing, Mass. Street triple murder defendant wants DA disqualified from upcoming trial

• Oct. 19 — Lawyer says Massachusetts Street triple murder defendant plans to argue self-defense, slain men shouldn’t be called victims

• Aug. 3 — ‘Significant’ new evidence in downtown Lawrence triple murder case; trial delayed until November

• April 27 — Jury trial set for September in downtown Lawrence triple murder case

• March 27 — Defendants in downtown Lawrence murder case will face jury together; trial delayed until later this year

• Feb. 9 — Judge orders trial, upgrades some charges in downtown Lawrence triple murder case

• Feb. 8 — Footage played at preliminary hearing shows triple homicide unfold on Massachusetts Street

• Jan. 19 — Officers testify about chaos, life-saving measures in aftermath of downtown Lawrence shooting

• Jan. 11 — Court testimony: Topeka feud led to ‘mayhem’ that left 3 dead on Massachusetts Street

• Jan. 10, 2018 — Hearing expected to reveal details of triple homicide on Massachusetts Street

• Dec. 4 — Preliminary hearing for downtown Lawrence triple murder case pushed back a month

• Nov. 8 — Joint preliminary hearing set for 3 defendants in Massachusetts Street triple murder case

• Nov. 1 — Triple murder defendant still has no attorney; his and companion cases progressing together

• Oct. 31 — Judge seals affidavits in Mass. Street murder case, citing ongoing investigation and potential danger to witnesses

• Oct. 29 — How do Lawrence police patrol downtown? In wake of Mass Street killings, department has stepped up patrols; no permanently designated officers

• Oct. 25 — Massachusetts Street triple murder suspect appears in court alongside 2 other defendants

• Oct. 24 — Triple murder suspect arrives in Lawrence from Kansas City jail

• Oct. 19 — Charges begin to fill in details on triple homicide on Mass Street; murder suspect waives extradition

• Oct. 18 — Topeka man arrested on suspicion of killing 3 people in downtown Lawrence

• Oct. 18 — Hearings for downtown Lawrence shooting defendants pushed back a week

• Oct. 17 — After 2 arrests, Lawrence police still searching for killer or killers in downtown shooting

• Oct. 13 — No arrests in downtown triple homicide; Lawrence police say investigation is active and ‘progressing’

• Oct. 4 — Funerals set for two young Topeka men killed in downtown Lawrence shootings

• Oct. 3 — Services set for woman, 22, killed in downtown Lawrence shootings; Leah Brown described as loving, ‘vibrant’

• Oct. 2 — Police: Shooting on Massachusetts Street that killed 3 was not a random act; 1 injured survivor released from hospital; other in stable condition

• Oct. 1 — Lawrence has had 5 homicides since Sept. 1 and city leaders are searching for answers

• Oct. 1, 2017 — 5 people shot in downtown Lawrence; 3 dead

Contact Journal-World public safety reporter Sara Shepherd


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