If you’re a defendant or a recalcitrant witness, you don’t want to find yourself on the witness stand being questioned by Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney Carlos Vega.
Vega, 49, a Philadelphia prosecutor for 29 years assigned to homicide cases, has a way of working his way under the skin of the toughest witnesses. And if they don’t always say what Vega wants to hear, the witnesses also usually don’t end up gloating as they leave the stand.
So it was unusual when Vega found himself the witness last Wednesday, being questioned by defense attorney Christopher D. Warren.
The issue? Did Vega know that admitted killer Donnell Murchison would refuse to answer Warren’s questions after Murchison incriminated Warren’s client, Will “Pooh” Hook, also known as Keith Epps, in the ongoing Philadelphia Common Pleas Court trial in the 2009 slayings at the Piazza at Schmidts complex in Northern Liberties.
At stake? The possibility of a mistrial and a judge’s order barring a retrial because of prosecutorial misconduct, if Warren could prove Vega “sandbagged him” by purposely putting up a witness – without prior notice – whom Vega knew would not answer defense questions.
Six men were supposed to go to trial on Nov. 7 but three pleaded guilty, including Murchison, 35, one of three gunmen and the only one to plead guilty to shooting Rian Thal and Timothy Gilmore in what prosecutors say was a drug robbery gone awry.
In addition to their day jobs, Thal, 34, a party planner, and Gilmore, 40 a long-distance trucker based in Ohio, were involved in the city’s drug trade. Police later found more than $100,000 in cash and 8-1/2 pounds of cocaine in Thal’s posh seventh-floor Piazza apartment – the apparent object of the drug robbery.
Murchison’s plea bargain let him escape the death penalty in exchange for two consecutive life prison terms with no chance of parole. Prosecutors also agreed to protect Murchison’s family and see that he serves his time in an out-of-state federal prison to avoid retaliation.
But the quid pro quo was that Murchison had to testify truthfully against his three alleged former associates: Hook, 43, and alleged mastermind of the drug robbery scheme, and alleged gunmen Edward Daniels, 44, and Antonio Wright, 30.
Murchison agreed to testify until the morning of Nov. 18, when he demanded last-minute meetings with his lawyers before testifying. When he took the witness stand before the Common Pleas Court jury of seven women and five women, Murchison’s first words were: “I do not wish to testify.”
Eventually, over almost two hours, Vega managed to extract from Murchison a series of one-word answers confirming Murchison’s two statements to detectives as Vega read them verbatim to the jury. But when it came time for Warren to cross-examine the admitted killer, Murchison clammed up for 30 minutes until Judge Jeffrey P. Minehart ended the questioning.
Warren and the other defense attorneys moved for a mistrial, which is why Minehart scheduled Wednesday’s hearing outside of the jury’s presence.
Under questioning by Warren and Vega’s fellow prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Selber, Vega insisted that when he negotiated the plea bargain with Murchison and defense attorney Michael E. Wallace, Murchison said “he would cooperate fully.”
Like many prosecution witnesses who turn on their alleged accomplices and agree to testify, Murchison was “very reluctant to testify. He was frightened and wanted to know if there was any way to avoid it.”
Vega told Minehart that he decided on the strategy of getting Murchison to affirm his earlier statements as a way of “calming him.”
“Mr. Murchison didn’t want to testify but he did what he had to do,” Vega explained. “I was trying to calm him down, soothe him, get him comfortable.”
“Did you lie for him to take the stand?” pressed Warren.
“This was not a ruse,” replied Vega. “This witness was frightened. It was a stressful condition.”
Minehart, who had ordered a transcript of Murchison’s testimony, cut off Warren and denied the defense motion for a mistrial: “I believe Mr. Vega did not put the witness up to clam up on the cross-examination.”
Minehart also decided not to hold Murchison in contempt for refusing to answer questions. And the prosecution has not said whether it would annul Murchison’s guilty-plea agreement, which could result in him be tried and again facing the possibility of the death penalty.
Minehart’s ruling allowed the trial to resume on Monday. Last Wednesday, all three defendants told Minehart they would waive their right to testify in their defense. If there is no other defense evidence, the jury of seven women and five men could hear the lawyers’ closing arguments on Monday and begin deliberations Tuesday.
It’s unlikely that the judge’s ruling has settled the issue. Warren and other defense lawyers are sure to raise the issue again in appeal motions if the jury finds the three defendants guilty of felony murder.