Terrell Johnson retrial delayed

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When Terrell Johnson was convicted in 1995 for the murder of Verna Robinson one year earlier, the only witness against him was a woman named Evelyn McBryde who had a number of other charges against her dismissed in exchange for her testimony.

In 2003, Kenneth Robinson, no relation to the victim, came forward and said he was smoking crack with McBryde blocks away from the Hazelwood Street where she said she saw Johnson shoot Robinson. That, and the lack of physical evidence tying Johnson to the shooting, was enough for Common Pleas Judge Lawrence O’Toole to grant a new trial in 2008.

The trial was to have started Feb. 28, but has now been postponed pending Common Pleas Judge Donald Machen’s ruling on whether certain evidence should be admitted.

Robinson, a crack addict, had filed assault charges against Johnson in the spring of 1994 saying he beat her up over a $100 drug debt. Johnson said she tried to run and fell on some broken city steps.

However, Robinson had also told officers that in November 1993, she saw “Hazelwood Mob” member Anthony “Little Anthony” Griffin shoot Eric Godfrey in the face with a shotgun during a drive-by. Godfrey’s family was in a dispute with the gang.

On July 21 of 1994, she was schedule to testify at hearings on both the Johnson assault and the Griffin shooting. She didn’t make it.

McBryde originally testified she had been smoking crack in an apartment and saw Robinson there. She said she left soon after Robinson, but when leaving the building she heard a shot, saw Robinson on the sidewalk surrounded by Johnson and two others. One of them called her a snitch then shot her in the head.

That was enough for a conviction, though lawyers for Johnson’s two co-defendants shredded her story in their subsequent trials. McBryde, now 42, has a history of more than 50 theft and fraud charges. In 2007 she pleaded guilty to one charge of bank fraud for a $69,000 scam involving multiple false identities and social security cards.

Johnson’s wife Saundra, who along with Point Park’s Innocence Project, the Thomas Merton Center and HRC-FedUp has led the fight to free him, said her husband could have been released last year after District Attorney Stephen Zappala offered him a plea deal, but he refused, claiming he is innocent.

She said Robinson is dead because of police incompetence, and her husband was railroaded to cover for it.

“This is cruel beyond words,” she said. “And we will not rest till he is free and these authorities are held to account for their crimes.”

During the Feb. 28 hearing, Assistant District Attorney Russell Broman argued that the jury in the new trial should hear statements from Robinson about Johnson allegedly assaulting her prior to the killing, as well as phone calls Johnson made from prison.

He also argued the jury should hear from Robinson’s mother Barbara, who claims she saw Johnson and two other men stalking the area before the killing.

William Brennan, Johnson’s lawyer noted that in previous transcripts, Barbara Robinson said she did not recognize the men she saw.

A new trial date will be set after Machen rules on the evidence, which could take a month.

(Send comments to cmorrow@newpittsburghcourier.com)

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