After days spent in court presenting their case, on Thursday prosecutors stood in court as retired Circuit Court Judge Brooks Goldsmith called their case “mere speculation.”
Eighth Circuit Solicitor David Stumbo and Assistant Solicitor Josh Thomas were tasked with presenting the evidence gathered as part of the Greenwood Police Department’s investigation into the July 28, 2018 shooting at Greenwood Mall. They finished presenting the state’s case Wednesday evening, and on Thursday the seven attorneys representing the six defendants filed their motions to end the trial early with a directed verdict from the judge.
“Mere presence is certainly not grounds for conviction,” said Stephen Geoly, attorney for Isaiah Whatley.
Throughout the trial, Geoly argued that Whatley wasn’t with the other defendants at the time of the shooting and that he happened to be walking in the same direction they were when the shots were fired. He even argued that the state had no evidence the shots fired weren’t blank rounds.
Stumbo conceded that witness descriptions of a shooter didn’t match Whatley’s appearance, but said that each defendant was culpable.
While the shooting happened while the six were out of view of security cameras, Stumbo said where they would have been standing is where officers recovered four spent 9mm shell casings. Footage from Foot Locker showed five of the six men gathered outside the Foot Locker, then as a man named Isaiah Brown walked out and headed toward Belk, the five and Whatley are seen heading in the same direction.
“The five of them very clearly are involved with waiting out there for Isaiah Brown to come out of that store,” Stumbo said.
But there was no evidence that Brown ever called 911 or reported being shot at, said Carson Henderson, attorney for Shyheim Reed. Defendants had even told officers they saw Brown with a gun and an early picture presented by a witness to police as a possible suspect depicted Brown getting into a car.
Stumbo said he’s gotten convictions without cooperation from victims before and made the case for what evidence he had presented in court, but each defense attorney raised concerns that the evidence amounted to nothing but guesswork as to who actually fired the shots.
After hearing arguments, Goldsmith granted each attorney’s motion for a directed verdict. He said it was “mere speculation” that any of the defendants had a gun or fired it, or that there was any plan among them or intent by them to kill Brown.
“I wouldn’t be in a position to make this ruling if Brown had shown up and implicated anyone,” he said.
From the start of this investigation, Brown was uncooperative with law enforcement. Stumbo said Brown didn’t offer any information to investigators, and when subpoenaed to appear in court and testify when this trial started Nov. 18, Brown was nowhere to be found. A bench warrant was issued for his arrest, and police had not apprehended him by Thursday’s ruling.
“The law and the facts, we believe, were very clear on this case to give the jury sufficient evidence to find either guilty or not guilty, and that’s the way our system works,” Stumbo said after the trial was over. “There’s nothing police could have done in their investigation or that we could have done as prosecutors to make Brown cooperate.”
The physical evidence in this case, namely the spent shell casings and what the state contests are bullet holes, make it clear where the gun was fired from. That area is a blind spot for security cameras, Stumbo said, leaving investigators without any recording of the actual moment the shots were fired.
“In terms of the deck being stacked against us, that loaded the deck,” said Greenwood Police Chief Gerald Brooks. “We had a witness that, essentially, we couldn’t use. A woman that heard something the victim said that we’d love the jury to be able to hear, but because of the rules of law she wasn’t able to testify to what she heard.”
Shalonda Calhoun, manager of the Foot Locker, heard Brown say “Auntie, they’re trying to get at me,” shortly before the shooting. She wasn’t allowed to testify to hearing him say that, but if he had testified and denied saying those words, she would have been allowed to testify to hearing it, Stumbo said.
Throughout the case, defense attorneys picked apart details of the investigative process and asked why certain actions weren’t taken, like asking the State Law Enforcement Division to analyze the spent cartridges for DNA or fingerprints or to do a ballistic analysis of the crime scene.
Thomas said investigators had to prioritize methods that would get results, and in his and Stumbo’s careers, neither prosecutor had ever had positive results checking bullet casings for such evidence.
Following the judge’s decision, Greenville activist Jack Logan of Put Down the Guns Now Young People strongly criticized police for their investigative work, calling for the removal of high-ranking department officials.
“I want the chief and that whole command staff gone,” he said. “That was a very poorly investigated case, and that’s who you point the finger at, not Stumbo.”
Stumbo disagreed, and praised officers for their work investigating the case. Brooks also said his investigators did good work and thanked the Greenwood County Sheriff’s Office and state Highway Patrol for assistance in securing a scene as large and multi-faceted as the mall.
“Is there any perfect investigation? I don’t think so,” Stumbo said. “But I think these guys worked hard. They were taken out of their weekend on a Saturday evening and didn’t get out of the mall until the middle of the night. They came back the next day on Sunday and spent the whole day there. They worked pretty much around the clock until they had all the witnesses they could have interviewed and reviewed all the video in this case.”
Without any opportunity for appeal, Stumbo said he and his fellow prosecutors will move forward and begin tackling the next case. He and Brooks both said their offices are dedicated to continuing to serve Greenwood County and trying their hardest to dole out justice where it’s needed.