Jury finds Topeka man guilty of 3 downtown Lawrence murders

photo by: Sara Shepherd

Anthony L. Roberts Jr. is handcuffed after being convicted of three counts of murder and one count of attempted murder on Tuesday, June 25, 2019, in Douglas County District Court. Roberts fired at least 15 shots amid a crowd at 11th and Massachusetts streets on Oct. 1, 2017.

Story updated at 1:50 p.m. Tuesday

A Douglas County jury on Tuesday convicted Anthony L. Roberts Jr. of three murders and one attempted murder in the 2017 mass shooting in downtown Lawrence.

Following a two-week trial and about five hours of deliberations, jurors returned their verdict just before 10:30 a.m. Tuesday in Douglas County District Court.

They found Roberts, 22, of Topeka, guilty as charged on all four counts:

• One count of second-degree intentional murder for killing Colwin L. Henderson III, 20, of Topeka.

• Two counts of first-degree felony murder for killing Leah E. Brown, 22, of Shawnee, and Tre’Mel D. Dean-Rayton, 24, of Topeka, as Roberts was trying to kill Henderson

• One count of attempted second-degree murder for shooting Topeka resident Tahzay Rayton, who survived being shot twice.

photo by: Contributed photos

From left, Leah Elizabeth Brown, 22, of Shawnee; Tre’Mel Dupree Dean-Rayton, 24, of Topeka; and Colwin Lynn Henderson III, 20, of Topeka.

Roberts is scheduled to be sentenced Aug. 1. He faces up to life in prison.

The largest shooting incident in Lawrence in recent memory happened at bar-closing time on a busy Saturday night downtown.

It was about 1:40 a.m. Oct. 1, 2017, when groups of Topeka men who didn’t get along started throwing punches at the northwest corner of 11th and Massachusetts streets.

Then over 20 gunshots started flying, at least 15 of those coming from the Glock pistol with an extended magazine that Roberts brought to Lawrence that night.

Brown was the only shooting victim who didn’t know anyone involved.

She’d just left a nearby bar after a night out with her best friend, and was in the crosswalk in the middle of Massachusetts Street when she was hit, stumbled the rest of the way across the street and fell.

Brown’s mother, Shawnee resident Gretchen Brown, called Tuesday’s verdict a relief — at least from this phase of court proceedings and for the Lawrence community.

“Leah will never be back,” Brown said.

“The justice is for the people of the city, who won’t be at risk for this kind of violence from this individual.”

Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson said court proceedings have been a long, hard process for all the victims’ families since Roberts and two co-defendants were arrested nearly two years ago.

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

• June 12 — Prosecutors say defendant came to ‘settle a score’ and murdered 3 in melee; he argues he fired in self-defense

Branson said the verdict was just.

“The jury convicted him of exactly what he did,” Branson said. “We fully believe that his intention was to come over here and provoke a confrontation.”

In the process, Branson said, Roberts killed innocent people and “wreaked havoc” in downtown Lawrence.

Relatives and supporters of both Roberts and the victims wept in the courtroom when the verdict was announced.

Roberts displayed no outward emotion during the reading, but erupted after jurors left the courtroom and Judge Sally Pokorny began discussing a sentencing date with attorneys.

“Might as well do that sentencing (expletive) right now,” Roberts said, saying he was going to get life in prison anyway.

Roberts then stood up and momentarily attempted to fling off deputies who surrounded him, but then stood still as he was handcuffed and led out of the courtroom.

Branson, as well as Brown, praised law enforcement’s work on the case.

Multiple seasoned detectives from the Lawrence Police Department testified that this was the largest-scale investigation they’d worked in their careers. They pursued hundreds of leads and produced thousands of pages of reports, Branson said.

Nearly every officer who responded to the scene described it as “chaos.”

There were perhaps hundreds of people in the area when the shootings occurred.

Bystanders — many with cell phone videos rolling — crowded the shooting victims where they fell on three different corners of the intersection. Amid yelling and shuffling, first-responders checked for pulses and tried to render life-saving aid on the sidewalk but were unsuccessful.

The Topeka residents who knew what happened and who was involved didn’t tell police at the scene, or even at the hospital in the hours that followed.

Some later testified that they feared retaliation, or that they were friends or relatives of the men responsible and didn’t want to help authorities prosecute them.

Roberts’ defense team, appointed attorneys Shaye Downing and Joshua Seiden, had argued that Roberts acted lawfully in self-defense and should be acquitted.

Roberts testified that his group was outnumbered by foes, that his friends were being punched and kicked on the ground, and that he saw one man from the other group with a gun in his hand. Roberts said he was afraid of being shot and started firing wildly as he “backpedaled” from the altercation.

Branson prosecuted the case along with Deputy District Attorney David Melton and Assistant District Attorney Hannah Wittman.

Prosecutors pointed to evidence showing Roberts and his friends instigated the fight, and that men from the other group were all unarmed — most of them having just left a concert at the Granada where weapons weren’t allowed. Earlier that night, a friend of Roberts’ had been beaten up by a man from the other group.

Police dashcam video from across the street — though the figures in it were small and shadowy — showed Henderson was stooped over punching another man when Roberts shot him in the back from a distance away, Branson said.

Roberts later told a relative that he shot Henderson until he saw him fall, according to trial testimony.

Along with Brown, Dean-Rayton and Rayton — both friends of Roberts’ and his group — were also hit by Roberts’ spray of gunfire.

Prosecutors said Roberts’ friend and co-defendant Ahmad M. Rayton, of Topeka, was the only other person shooting. Evidence indicated Rayton fired a string of at least six shots from a .40-caliber gun right after Roberts stopped firing.

Rayton was charged with attempted murder in the fifth shooting, of Royelle Hunt. However, following a plea deal, that charge was dropped and Rayton was convicted of a single count of attempted voluntary manslaughter for shooting at another man, Robert Wheeler, whom he missed.

The third friend and co-defendant, Dominique J. McMillon, of Topeka, also entered a plea and was convicted of misdemeanor battery for punching Wheeler, starting the fistfight that devolved into the deadly shootings.

Contact Journal-World public safety reporter Sara Shepherd

Other recent coverage: Downtown Lawrence triple murder case

• 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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