Mass. Street trial begins: Prosecutors say defendant came to ‘settle a score’ and murdered 3 in melee; he argues he fired in self-defense

photo by: Sara Shepherd

Anthony L. Roberts Jr. is pictured as opening arguments in his murder trial get underway in Douglas County District Court on Wednesday, June 12, 2019. He is seated with defense attorneys Shaye Downing and Joshua Seiden.

Updated story

June 25 — Jury finds Topeka man guilty of 3 downtown Lawrence murders

While hundreds of others on Massachusetts Street were just out having a good time, Anthony L. Roberts Jr. rolled into Lawrence to “settle a score,” prosecutors contended Wednesday in opening arguments at Roberts’ murder trial.

Roberts, 22, of Topeka, and his friends confronted a group of other Topeka men they had “bad blood” with, Deputy District Attorney David Melton said. They started brawling. Guns came out. Roberts — who had an extended magazine on his gun — fired at least 15 times, Melton said, and it was his bullets that wounded one and killed three other victims.

“That’s where their nights of fun, and their lives, came to an end,” Melton said. “That’s where they were shot dead — murdered by this defendant, Anthony Roberts.”

Roberts’ defense team, however, said Roberts fired to defend himself and his friends. Even still, they said, forensic evidence won’t prove he shot any of the fatal bullets.

Others instigated the deadly incident, yet police only investigated Roberts and his friends as suspects, appointed defense attorney Joshua Seiden argued.

“Anthony and his friends live in an area of Topeka where there simply aren’t many safe places for young people to go to hang out at night,” Seiden said. “Anthony and his friends came to Lawrence, as many people do, to avoid violence and to avoid danger.”

Seiden said that Roberts — who legally carried a gun for personal protection — and his friends were outnumbered by their foes. When the fight devolved, Roberts reacted by shooting.

“Anthony and his friends are being pummeled, and Anthony’s about to be next,” Seiden said. “Anthony saw guns being drawn, he had no time to think, and he reacted. Anthony drew his gun, a 9-millimeter Glock. To protect his friends and to protect himself, Anthony fired that Glock.”

photo by: Sara Shepherd

During opening arguments in the triple murder trial against Anthony L. Roberts Jr. on Wednesday, June 12, 2019, in Douglas County District Court, Deputy District Attorney David Melton points to a photo of the intersection of 11th and Massachusetts streets, where the Oct. 1, 2017, shootings occurred.

photo by: Sara Shepherd

Defense attorney Joshua Seiden gives opening arguments at the murder trial of Anthony L. Roberts Jr. on Wednesday, June 12, 2019, in Douglas County District Court.

More coverage from trial

• June 24 — Jury deliberating intentional murder versus self-defense

• June 21 — Defendant says he fired wildly in fear, ‘wasn’t thinking at all’

• June 20 — Defendant: ‘I been shot twice’ in Topeka, came to Lawrence to party without fear of violence

• June 19 — Testimony: 15 shell casings from scene were all fired from defendant’s gun, 2 victims were shot in the back

• June 18 — Witness says defendant told her, ‘I shot Colwin’

• June 17 — Shooting survivor, friend of defendant testify reluctantly

• June 14 — Eyewitness testifies he saw triple murder defendant, second man shooting on Mass. Street

• June 13 — Witnesses at trial describe immediate aftermath of triple homicide

Roberts’ trial began Monday in Douglas County District Court, before Judge Sally Pokorny. It’s scheduled to last two weeks.

After nearly three days of jury selection, a panel of 12 jurors plus four alternates was picked Wednesday afternoon, and opening arguments began.

Along with Melton, Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson and Assistant District Attorney Hannah Wittman are prosecuting the case.

Seiden and fellow appointed attorney Shaye Downing are representing Roberts.

Roberts is charged with two counts of first-degree felony murder, one count of second-degree murder, and one count of attempted second-degree murder in the Oct. 1, 2017, incident at the intersection of 11th and Massachusetts streets.

Killed were Leah Elizabeth Brown, 22, of Shawnee; Colwin Lynn Henderson III, 20, of Topeka; and Tre’Mel Dupree Dean-Rayton, 24, of Topeka. Royelle Hunt and Tahzay Rayton, both of Topeka, were shot but survived.

Two of Roberts’ friends were charged with less severe crimes in the incident, including the shooting of Hunt. Ahmad M. Rayton, 23, and Dominique J. McMillon, 20, both of Topeka, have since entered pleas and been sentenced.

Brown was the only victim who knew no one else involved.

Melton told jurors they would hear from Brown’s best friend, who was with her when she collapsed in the street and held her as she died.

He said jurors also would see camera footage of muzzle flashes and people running from the shooting; Lawrence police officers testifying about the “chaos” that ensued; and video of officers stopping Roberts and his friends on their way out of town but returning Roberts’ gun and letting them go when they lied about where they’d been that night.

The murder weapon was eventually recovered again, in April 2018 after an unrelated car chase in Johnson County, Melton said. He said it’s unclear where the gun had been since the homicides but that the person in the car chase had nothing to do with the Lawrence incident.

Lab testing confirmed that 15 shell casings left on the corner of 11th and Massachusetts were from that gun, which Melton said was Roberts’ Glock.

“This isn’t a case about self-defense,” Melton said. “It’s a case about settling the score.”

Seiden urged jurors to set aside the particularly “tragic” nature of the fatal incident and avoid rushing to judgment.

“As you see and hear the evidence in this case, keep an open mind,” Seiden said.

Contact Journal-World public safety reporter Sara Shepherd

Previous coverage: Downtown Lawrence triple murder trial

• June 11 — Jury selection will continue for third day in Massachusetts Street murder trial

• June 10 — Massachusetts Street triple murder trial begins in Lawrence

• May 31 — Witness, evidence issues addressed at pretrial hearing in Massachusetts Street triple murder case

• May 13 — After plea deals in downtown Lawrence triple-murder case, DA wants co-defendants to testify against friend

• May 8 — Topeka man sentenced to 10 years in prison for role in Massachusetts Street shootings

• April 3 — Second co-defendant convicted following plea deal in Massachusetts Street murder case

• March 8 — Judge rejects Lawrence triple-murder defendant’s self-defense claim

• March 5 — One co-defendant in downtown Lawrence triple murder case now free after pleading to misdemeanor

• Jan. 11 — Massachusetts Street triple murder trial pushed back until June

• Dec. 4 — After attorney drama in Lawrence triple murder trial, new defense team ready to move forward

• Nov. 20 — Citing ‘incompetence,’ judge kicks attorney off downtown Lawrence triple murder case

• Nov. 16 — Defense attorney tainted jury pool, causing mistrial in downtown Lawrence triple murder case, transcript reveals

• Nov. 15 — Judge: Defense attorney’s demand to disqualify DA from triple murder trial was ‘totally misplaced’

• Nov. 9 — Each defendant in downtown triple murder case will now have his own trial; family of shooting victim ‘devastated’

• Nov. 8 — Mass. Street triple murder trial called off: Judge declares mistrial before jury is picked

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

• Nov. 6 — 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


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