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Betras calls prosecution ‘deceitful’ in murder case

Staff photos / Ed Runyan,,,, Attorney Dave Betras talks to Judge John Durkin of Mahoning County Common Pleas Court about why he asked the judge to remove assistant Prosecutor Dawn Cantalamessa from the aggravated murder case of Lavontae E. Knight.

YOUNGSTOWN — Attorney David Betras used an audio and video presentation Friday to lay out why he thinks Dawn Cantalamessa, assistant county prosecutor, should be removed from his client’s aggravated murder case.

Betras paired remarks Cantalamessa made over the last 2 1/2 years about evidence in the case against Lavontae E. Knight, 25, with information Betras learned later to label Cantalamessa as “deceitful” to defense counsel and to Judge John Durkin.

Betras said Cantalamessa was deceitful about evidence favorable to the defense that Betras did not get for more than two years. Knight is accused of killing Josh Donatelli, 26, at Donatelli’s home on Imperial Street on the West Side on Oct. 25, 2018.

Friday’s hearing did not conclude and will resume at an unspecified later date.

Betras said Cantalamessa stated May 5, 2021, that during a Jan. 9, 2019, police interview with an eyewitness to the murder, the interview did not contain anything of consequence.

Then Betras played a video of the interview, during which the witness failed to identify the shooter while looking at a “lineup” of photos of men, including Knight. The defense was not told about the witness being shown a lineup, Betras has said.

Cantalamessa informed Betras April 30 about the interview. It was 10 days before the trial was supposed to begin, so Durkin postponed the trial to August. The Mahoning County Prosecutor’s office has indicated that Cantalamessa did not tell Betras about the lineup sooner because she didn’t know about it sooner.

At the May 5 hearing, Durkin said he believed the reasons Cantalamessa gave as to why prosecutors did not provide the evidence sooner.

“But what I have trouble wrapping my brain around is why it took so long for someone to communicate with detective (Michael) Lambert to ask him the simple question … is there anything else in this case involving this eyewitness that we know happened?”

THE INTERVIEW

In the video of the interview Lambert is shown entering the interview room after the lineup was given and speaking with the witness. He told the witness he or she should not tell anyone that he or she was unable to identify the shooter.

“It’s important that nobody knows, outside of us, that you cannot identify” Knight or George Gutierres as being involved in the killing, Lambert told her.

“That’s what a police officer is telling a witness,” Betras told Durkin. “Two and a half years I wanted this tape. Does that sound like there’s nothing (the witness) is saying on that tape or there is nothing detective Lambert is saying on that tape?”

Lambert also told the witness that police were “looking strongly” at a specific person as being the shooter. Betras said Lambert made it clear he was talking about Knight.

“Does that sound like there’s really nothing on that tape?” Betras said.

The witness later told prosecutors he or she had seen Knight on television in an unrelated matter. The witness at that point told prosecutors he or she could now identify Knight as Donatelli’s killer.

Betras has said the identification of Knight as the killer would be a key part of the trial. He secured an expert witness to testify about the unreliability of such identifications, especially when the witness and suspect are of a different race.

A VIOLATION?

When Betras was finished, Jennifer McLaughlin, chief of the criminal division of the prosecutor’s office, said a violation requiring removal of Cantalamessa from the case “only occurs …. when a defendant has been tried and (evidence beneficial to the defendant) is discovered after the trial,” she said.

Betras argued that Cantalamessa must be removed from the case because she will need to be a witness at Knight’s trial, but prosecutors took the deposition of another witness that should eliminate the need for Cantalamessa to testify, McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin added that none of what Betras presented to the court Friday was evidence and asked that Lambert be allowed to testify regarding the witness shown the lineup and “why that wasn’t disclosed.”

Betras objected on the grounds that he would like to have background information on Lambert to determine whether his personnel file indicates any problems with his credibility.

Betras said his motion to disqualify Cantalamessa is about “her obligation” to turn over evidence to the defense, not Lambert’s obligations as a police officer.

The judge agreed to resume the hearing later to give him time to obtain background information on Lambert and possibly to review communications between Cantalamessa and Lambert in this case.

Cantalamessa and Lambert attended the hearing, but neither one spoke.

erunyan@vindy.com

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