Jury finds Topeka man guilty of 3 downtown Lawrence murders
photo by: Sara Shepherd
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
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 18 — Witness says defendant told her, ‘I shot Colwin’
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.