New Jersey jury clears man of five murders over 1978 teens' disappearance

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Newark city skyline, from file.

A jury in New Jersey yesterday acquitted a Newark man of murdering five teens who vanished in the city in 1978. The prosecution had contended Lee Anthony Evans trapped the boys in an empty house before burning it down.

Alvin Turner, 16; Melvin Pittman, 17; Randy Johnson, 16; Ernest Taylor, 17; and Michael McDowell, 16 disappeared on August 20, 1978. Recently homicide detectives got involved and in March last year they arrested Evans and his co-accused Philander Hampton. Hampton, Evans's cousin, had told police in 2008 that the pair were behind the teens' deaths and, although witnesses placed the boys in Evans's pickup truck, his testimony alone linked Evans to the mystery.

Evans represented himself through the majority of the case, although he did get his court-appointed lawyer, Olubukola Adetula, to take control of much of the trial's latter stages. The case has been on trial since October 28. It was Adetula who cross-examined Hampton.

The defense noted the poor record of drug dealer and user Hampton, who has spent time in jail for crimes including theft. He confessed in a plea deal that sees him sentenced to ten years in prison in exchange for his testimony, but will be eligible for parole within months as he has already served most of the two years required by 1978 guidelines.

It's like someone put you in the oven and burned you up. You can't undo that.

—Lee Evans, cleared of murder

Hampton testified Evans, who is now 58, burned the quintet alive in revenge after discovering they had broken into his property and stolen a pound of cannabis. Evans often offered odd jobs to the teens and Hampton said Evans brought the youths in two trips to the vacant Camden Street house on the pretense of helping move boxes.

Hampton, who is set to be paid $15,000 by the state to assist his relocation for his safety, testified he acted as a guard for the first two youngsters whilst Evans brought the second group; he claimed to have believed all that was planned was a stunt to scare the five. He further told the court that Evans imprisoned all five in a cupboard sealed by a solitary nail, pouring gasoline (petrol) onto the building's floors. Hampton said he gave Evans a match, who then set the house alight.

Newark Mayor Cory Brooker, pictured earlier this year, has been accused of arranging the arrests to boost his re-election hopes.
Image: David Shankbone.

Other witnesses described seeing the boys in the back of Evans's truck, and friends of the missing told the court the five had previously broken into Evans's home to steal the drug. All five had small quantities of cannabis in their rooms when they vanished. However, testimony was inconsistent; the time of the final drug theft was in dispute, and Evans made a point of inconsistencies in testimony about the last known sightings of the boys, claiming accounts of them in his vehicle had changed over time.

The house in question was destroyed by fire. Specially trained dogs and sonar equipment both failed to show any trace of bodies at the site and the defense pointed out police searched a second site, which they said implied Hampton's account was not fully believed. It took thirteen hours of questioning before Hampton volunteered his claims, and police spent a year attempting to find evidence to reinforce them without success.

The jury has been deciding its verdict since Friday and spent roughly twelve hours deliberating. Victims' relatives wept as the foreman read out the verdicts, and Michael McDowell's sister Terry Lawson insisted "not guilty does not mean innocent. Mr. Evans may have escaped the law but never the lord." She nonetheless expressed gratitude the case went to trial. Multiple family members, including Lawson, have previously expressed confidence Evans killed their loved ones.

Evans sobbed after leaving court, after asking Judge Patricia K. Costello to tell him "You’re dismissed". "Man, you won," a friend told him, but Evans said he did not feel a winner although he was glad of the result. "That was the jury that wasn’t the people... It's like someone put you in the oven and burned you up. You can't undo that."

Cannabis played a central role in the trial, establishing a motive. File photo.

He went on to claim Essex County officials and Newark mayor Cory Booker engaged in a corrupt conspiracy against him, with Brooker using the arrests to aid his re-election campaign; Evans claims the timing was no coincidence. Brooker denies the allegations. Evans contends he should never have been prosecuted.

Costello has promised to later deal with what she called "astonishing" behavior by assistant prosecutor Peter Guarino. Retrials were twice sought by the defense and denied; once, he asked a witness if they knew of an unrelated murder by the accused's late brother. The other time a police officer appearing for Guarino as a witness mentioned a statement that two men were seen fleeing the fire; Costello had already said this was inadmissible evidence because the person behind the claim had since died. These incidents led to discussions without the jury present.

"[W]e are of course disappointed in the verdict, but respect the jury's process," said Essex County Acting Prosecutor Carolyn Murray. To answer a press question, she added "with respect to this case criminally, this case is closed."