Evidence in Rowan case kept top secret
Prosecutors review DNA results hidden from public view
YOUNGSTOWN — The DNA results turned over to Mahoning County prosecutors last week in the 2020 slaying of 4-year-old Rowan Sweeney may be the best secret that officials have ever had to keep.
For many months, the monthly hearings in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court for defendants Kimonie Bryant, 25, and Brandon Crump Jr. 19, have included a discussion of how much longer it would be until the prosecutor’s office would have the DNA results.
They were delayed for months by haggling over whether an expert witness for Bryant would be allowed to witness the DNA testing of evidence collected from the scene of the Sept. 21, 2020, killing in a home on Perry Street in Struthers where the boy was staying with his mother, Alexis Schneider.
Other delays related to what lab would do the testing.
Four adults also were shot in the tragedy, which authorities say started as a robbery.
But last Friday, the Virginia private laboratory Bode Technology turned over the results to prosecutors, and prosecutors in turn provided them to the defense attorneys, according to a Monday filing from Jennifer McLaughlin, chief of the criminal division of the prosecutor’s office.
WHY IT’S A SECRET
The reason prosecutors and defense attorneys are not allowed to tell reporters and others what the DNA results show is that Judge Anthony D’Apolito issued an order Feb. 21, 2021, banning the parties in the case from discussing the evidence in the case with anyone outside of court hearings.
The entry is specific as to what individuals are banned from talking about the evidence: prosecutors and defense attorneys, “witnesses, court employees, and police are ordered” not to comment on evidence such as “performance of any examination or tests … or the identity or nature of physical evidence expected to be presented.”
The purpose of the order is to ensure that the defendants get a fair trial, the judge stated. He noted that nothing prevents news media from “reporting on events that transpire in the courtroom.”
Gina DeGenova, who serves as chief assistant prosecutor under Prosecutor Paul Gains and who will be interim county prosecutor, confirmed this week that because of D’Apolito’s order, sometimes called a “gag order,” the prosecutor’s office cannot divulge any information about DNA results.
She said she believes D’Apolito’s order was broad enough to ban such information being released by anyone.
Specifically, a filing in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court states that the evidence was deposited into a secured database called Matrix that the prosecutor’s office uses. Defense attorneys have access to the system so they can access digital files, such as investigator’s notes and lab results.
The filing states that evidence from “Bode Technology Forensic Case Report, Bode Case No. CCA2124-0028” was now available for viewing by defense attorneys on Matrix.
The filing does not provide any clues as to what the results show.
One reason the DNA results are important is that witness testimony in the case has shifted over the 26 months since the killing took place. Initially, witnesses identified Bryant as the gunman.
But later, two witnesses told police Crump was the man who came through the door with a red hooded sweatshirt pulled tightly around his face and shot everyone in the house, killing Rowan as his mother, Alexis Schneider, pleaded with the male not to do it.
WHO IS THE SHOOTER?
Prosecutors have said they hoped the DNA results from Bode Technology would help clarify who the shooter was. Crump and Bryant would both face serious charges regardless of who the triggerman was, but prosecutors say the identity of the shooter would determine which man goes on trial first.
Recently, the murder and felonious assault charges against Crump were dismissed on a defense motion arguing it was improper for Crump to be indicted without Judge Theresa Dellick of Mahoning County Juvenile Court first finding probable cause that Crump committed the crimes before she bound Crump’s case over to adult court.
Crump was 17 at the time of the killing and shootings. Prosecutors said they intended to file the murder and felonious assault charges against Crump in juvenile court as soon as possible so that the charges can be returned to adult court.
A third man charged in Rowan’s death, Andre McCoy Jr., 22, has been missing since his indictment in March of 2021. Bryant and McCoy both face charges that could result in the death penalty if convicted.