The trial got underway Monday in the case involving a 2016 mass shooting in Wilkinsburg, with attorneys for defendant Cheron Shelton arguing that he “played no role” in the attack.
Shelton, 33, is accused of killing five adults, including a pregnant woman, who gathered on an unseasonably warm evening in March 2016 for a backyard barbeque. Prosecutors accuse Shelton of ambushing the partygoers with another assailant from a nearby alleyway.
In his opening statement Monday, assistant district attorney Kevin Chernosky suggested to jurors that Shelton targeted the group after seeing photos from the cookout posted on social media. Shelton, the prosecutor said, had been “holding a grudge” against a man at the barbeque, allegedly believing the man had killed Shelton’s best friend in 2013.
Chernosky told the jury that the government would make its case in part by using cell phone evidence, letters Shelton wrote in jail, and testimony from Wilkinsburg detective Michael Adams, who has said he heard the shooting unfold while sitting in a police cruiser a few blocks away.
Considering all the evidence, Chernosky said, “a picture starts to emerge” of “a brazen, vengeful, callous act perpetrated by [Shelton].”
But in his opening statement for Shelton, attorney Randall McKinney warned jurors that the government’s “star witness,” Adams, is “going to lie on the stand.”
McKinney acknowledged it was a “bold” allegation to make against an officer, but he questioned previous testimony from Adams for several reasons. For example, McKinney said that while the detective said he saw Shelton minutes after the shooting, he simply stared at the defendant for a minute from his cruiser and never questioned or detained him. In addition, McKinney said, Adams never mentioned to other officers who had arrived at the scene of the attack that he had encountered Shelton.
McKinney noted also that, when law enforcement searched Shelton’s residence, they found no weapons or bullets that matched the ammunition at the crime scene.
Shelton, McKinney said, had spent the evening of the shooting with his girlfriend and their two children. The lawyer said surveillance video shows that an inebriated Shelton later made his way to Penn Hills on his own. He even encountered Penn Hills police officers, McKinney said, before returning to his girlfriend’s home for the night.
Citing “significant reasonable doubt in this case,” McKinney admonished jurors to use “common sense” in assessing the evidence.
Monday’s opening arguments came shortly after Allegheny County Common Pleas Court Judge Edward Borkowski threw out all but one count of conspiracy against another defendant in the case, Robert Thomas, 31.
Thomas had been accused of participating in the 2016 attack, but last Thursday his attorneys filed a motion to dismiss the charges against him. Prosecutors had decided not to call a key witness to the stand, which Borkowski noted, left the state with only circumstantial evidence against Thomas.
Shelton’s trial was originally expected to last several weeks. Prosecutors began presenting their case immediately following opening statements.