Jury acquits Pennsylvania man in 2016 cookout slayings
PITTSBURGH (AP) — A jury returned a not guilty verdict Friday against the remaining defendant in the slayings of five people and an unborn baby at a western Pennsylvania cookout almost four years ago.
The jury returned the verdict for 33-year-old Cheron Shelton in the 2016 Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, shooting just after noon Friday. Jurors had deliberated since Tuesday morning after hearing nearly six days of testimony.
Shelton had been charged with first- and third-degree murder, as well as aggravated assault, attempted homicide and other charges.
Charges were dismissed earlier against Shelton's co-defendant, 31-year-old Robert Thomas. Authorities had alleged that he opened fire on one side and Shelton gunned down victims running onto a porch for safety. They allege the target, who survived, was a person Shelton believed was involved in the 2013 murder of a friend.
Three siblings — including one who was eight months pregnant — and two cousins were killed during the ambush at the family cookout in a Pittsburgh suburb. Three other people were shot and injured, including a man who was partially paralyzed.
Shelton's defense attorney, Randall McKinney, had argued that the evidence presented by prosecutors had been circumstantial and could have been interpreted in more benign ways including surveillance footage and cell phone location data. He urged jurors to resist the natural impulse to hold someone accountable because “the evidence in this case, the lack of evidence in this case, proves to us that the only appropriate verdict is not guilty.”
The defense put only Shelton's mother, Desdrene Smith, on the stand as a witness during his defense.
Prosecutors called dozens of witnesses to the stand and entered hundreds of exhibits, including a gun and ammunition recovered from Smith's home. They also submitted jailhouse letters intercepted by police and secretly recorded jailhouse visits between Shelton and his father.
Deputy District Attorney Kevin Chernosky had acknowledged that the case was circumstantial but said “the circumstances don't lie to you." He said that each piece of evidence taken by itself wouldn't be enough, but that “the combined effect of all of them is not innocence. It’s evidence.”
District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. said in a written statement after the verdict that “it is very difficult for the police and my office to investigate and prosecute crimes when the number of witnesses is limited.”