Jury deliberations in the Steve Tyson trial began Monday, after a morning of dramatic closing arguments in which experts were pitted against experts, and the credibility of the defendant and various witnesses was alternately assailed and defended by opposing counsel.
Tyson, 22, whose trial began April 14 in Superior Court in St. Thomas, is charged with the murders of Shaheel Joseph, 18, and Liz Marie Perez Chaparro, 15, in a gang shootout near Coki Beach on July 12, 2010.
Tyson faces one count of first-degree murder, one count of felony murder, one count of reckless endangerment, and three counts of unauthorized possession of a firearm.
In his closing statement, Assistant Attorney General Edward Veronda argued that the amount of incriminating evidence from witnesses and forensic analysts was substantial, and that aside from a few minor discrepancies, it all pointed to Tyson.
"When you combine the direct and circumstantial evidence, what do you get?" Veronda asked. "You get a consistent story."
He cited the nearly identical testimony from eyewitnesses Sean Penn, taxi driver Gerald Joseph, and Ceferino Perez Mendez, Chaparro’s father, all of whom were at the scene of the shootout and said they saw a man firing a gun from inside a red Honda.
In addition, he cited forensic evidence from gunshot residue expert Alfred Schwoeble and ballistics expert Maurice Cooper, who was the last witness to testify before closing arguments began Monday.
Schwoeble’s analysis turned up gunshot residue on key locations inside Tyson’s Honda, and Cooper’s analysis matched 9mm shell casings from the Coki Point crime scene to casings from a shooting on June 30, 2010, which Tyson was found guilty of.
In his own closing statement, defense attorney Leonard Francis questioned Penn’s memory of the event. Penn, a resident of Coki Point who was standing in his yard near the scene when the shootout occurred, said he thought the shooter was wearing a black shirt, but other witnesses said it was a white shirt.
Francis also reminded the jury that Penn’s account of how many shots he heard differed from other witnesses’ accounts, and that a fourth witness, Chanice Smith, testified that she did not remember seeing a red Honda.
Veronda dismissed these inconsistencies, and asked the jury who they thought was more credible.
"Did the witnesses impress you as people who were telling the truth, compared to Steve Tyson?" he asked. "Sean Penn may forget some small details because he was not traumatized by the shooting, and trauma causes memories to sear into your brain. But what about Steve Tyson? When he testified, he glossed over the details of the case, and could not say anything about what happened at pivotal moments."
When he took the stand Thursday, Tyson admitted that he was at Coki Beach that day for about 30 minutes, but he maintained that he was not waiting in his car for Joseph, as the prosecution alleged. He said he was only there to go for a swim when he heard gunshots.
Tyson testified that when he realized his car had been hit and his rear window shattered by bullets, he opted to pull to the side of road, get out of the vehicle, and run. He claimed he was unable to drive away due to heavy traffic.
Veronda countered this by citing evidence that Tyson was specifically targeting Joseph, even though Tyson claimed not to know Joseph or have any dispute with him. Veronda reminded the jury that Penn testified that he had seen a man in a red car sitting by the side of the road for several minutes before the shooting, as if lying in wait for his target.
Veronda added that the 9mm bullet that fatally wounded Joseph entered his body in the back of his head, which suggested that Joseph not only was unaware that he was being targeted, but also that he was not the first to fire.
On the first day of the trial Chanice Smith corroborated this version of events when she testified that she was walking alongside Joseph when he just "went down" without warning. There was no evidence that he was brandishing a gun when he was shot.
"You can call someone who gets shot in the back a coward, but you can’t call him a murderer," Veronda said.
The prosecution theorized that a third, unknown gunman fired back when Tyson opened fire on Joseph, and that this bullet ultimately killed Chaparro.
This was an important point for the prosecution to make, as they are trying to hold Tyson responsible for the death of Chaparro, even though the bullet that killed her did not come from the 9mm gun he allegedly used during the shootout.
According to the principle of transferred intent, if Tyson instigated the gunfight, he’s liable for whoever was killed as a result of his conduct.
Francis disputed the prosecution’s theory that Tyson shot Joseph in the back of the head, noting that the medical examiner’s autopsy report stated that the bullet appeared to enter his head from below and travel in an upward trajectory.
"The bullet entered from down to up, but based on the evidence, Mr. Tyson was up and Shaheel Joseph was down," Francis said, referring to the two mens’ alleged positions in relation to each other.
The defense maintained that at the time of the shooting Tyson was in his car nearer to the top of the hill at Coki Point, while Joseph was walking up from a lower point, so therefore it would have been impossible for him to have fired a bullet that entered at a down-to-up angle.
Veronda countered this by saying that the medical examiner’s opinion was just that, an opinion, but there is no way to know definitively what direction the bullet came from simply by looking at the autopsy report.
Earlier in the trial Francis called expert witness Guy Pierce, who testified as to the approximate positions of all three shooters based on where the spent shell casings were found. Pierce concluded that Tyson could not have been shooting from inside the car because no shell casings were found there, which would make sense if a gun was fired from within the vehicle.
But the prosecution countered that Pierce’s analysis was faulty because it did not take into account the fact that Tyson or the other gunmen may have been using a sideways "gangster" gun stance, which can cause shell casings to eject erratically, instead of to the right and rear as is typical.
In his closing statement Monday, Francis argued that Pierce’s analysis was thorough, and that the prosecution did not have enough basis to dispute it.
"My simple proposition is this," he said. "When Guy Pierce testified, did the prosecution refute his analysis beyond a reasonable doubt?"
Francis also hammered at the issue of reasonable doubt in relation to Tyson’s actions after the murder and his statements to his friend Frederico Perez, a V.I. Lottery enforcement officer.
He reminded the jury that Perez never saw Tyson in possession of a weapon, and that Tyson willingly turned himself in to Perez the day after the murders. He added that in the phone conversation between Perez and Tyson the night of the murders, Tyson told Perez "they fired on me first."
"Was Steve Tyson caught in an ambush?" Francis asked, postulating an alternate version of events. "It seems like HE was the target."
"You heard all the witness statements," he continued. "Pick out those things that make sense and throw out those that don’t."
If he is convicted of first-degree murder, Tyson faces life in prison without the possibility of parole. He is currently serving a 15-year sentence for third-degree assault with a firearm in relation to the incident that took place on June 30, 2010.
The jury continues deliberating Tuesday.