By Peter H. Milliken
The only eyewitness to come forward ‘fell apart,’ a county prosecutor says.
YOUNGSTOWN — A judge has dismissed an aggravated murder case and ordered the defendant freed from jail after a key witness denied seeing the fatal shooting and denied identifying the defendant in a photo lineup.
Visiting Judge Thomas P. Curran, of Mahoning County Common Pleas Court, dismissed the aggravated murder charge Tuesday against Melvin E. Johnson Jr. in the Nov. 15, 2007, shooting death of Marvin L. Hodges.
Johnson, 24, whose last known address was on McClure Avenue, was charged with fatally shooting Hodges at 2:47 a.m. in the 100 block of Jackson Street in Campbell, near the Michael J. Kirwan Homes.
Had he been tried and convicted on the aggravated murder charge, Johnson could have received a life prison sentence.
In dismissing the case just as the jury trial was to begin, the judge noted that the prosecution’s sole eyewitness to come forward now denies that his signature appears alongside the picture of Johnson in a photo lineup.
“The voluntary statement that he gave (police) appears to be in two different handwritings. One is in cursive, and the other is essentially in black printing. He denies that the black printing is his signature,” the judge said during the Tuesday hearing.
The judge also observed that this “reluctant witness” appeared in court for a Monday evidentiary hearing as a prisoner because he was arrested in Columbus as a material witness.
“There are no other corroborative details even that place the eyewitness at the scene, other than his own statement,” the judge said, adding that there is no scientific evidence in this case.
“Under the total circumstances, the court has no choice but to grant the (defense) motion to suppress,” the witness’ testimony, the judge concluded.
After the judge suppressed that testimony, Robert E. Bush Jr., chief of the criminal division of the county prosecutor’s office, moved for dismissal of the case.
“We only had one (eye)witness, and that witness fell apart,” Bush said.
That man, who would have been the prosecution’s key witness, was a close friend of Hodges, according to Hodges’ aunt, Salina Silva.
Silva said she believes others witnessed the shooting but were afraid to come forward, and hopes the case can be reopened if new evidence is found. “I’m hoping somebody will come forward,” who witnessed the shooting, she said.
“The investigation in total was bare,” Bush said, referring to the Campbell police probe. “It could have been more” thorough, he said.
Neither Detective Sgt. Gus Nicolaou of the Campbell Police Department, who headed the probe of Hodges’ death, nor Campbell Police Chief Gus Sarigianopoulos responded to a request for comment.
Bush said he will write to every Mahoning County police chief to invite representatives of their departments to a countywide seminar on investigative techniques later this month to address “the quality of investigations and the need for better attention to detail in all of our cases.”
An official of the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation, which analyzes scientific evidence linked to crimes, will attend the seminar, said Bush.
Hodges was shot following an argument over an incident in which a pedestrian was nearly hit by a car, Bush said.
Silva said, however, she believes the shooting followed an argument over a woman.
Johnson was secretly indicted by the Mahoning County grand jury on Nov. 29, 2007, and arrested in Youngstown on Feb. 10, 2008.
“The man ran ... It took two to three months to find him,” Silva said. “If he didn’t do anything, he wouldn’t have run.”
Hodges, 29, for whom the coroner’s office had addresses in Youngstown, Girard and Campbell, was found by police lying in a grassy area just after the shooting. A coroner’s investigator said Hodges was shot four times in the head and chest with a medium caliber weapon.