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Technology shines as star witness in Crump murder trial

Staff photos / Ed Runyan Mike Yacovone, assistant Mahoning County prosecutor, points to a gun in an image from the cellphone of Brandon Crump Jr. during Crump’s aggravated murder trial. Yacovone said Crump made the image one week before the shootings that killed 4-year-old Rowan Sweeney and injured four adults.

YOUNGSTOWN — Among the things prosecutors hid from the public in the months leading up to the Brandon Crump Jr. aggravated murder trial that ended Feb. 15 was that the witness testimony in the case might not answer a lot of questions about whether Crump was guilty.

It turns out the best witness was technology.

During the first two days of testimony before Judge Anthony D’Apolito of Mahoning County Common Pleas Court, all three surviving witnesses of the killing of 4-year-old Rowan Sweeney Sept. 21, 2020, testified.

Crump, 21, was convicted of aggravated murder in the killing at 111 Perry St. in Struthers as Rowan’s mother tried to shield him with her body and begged the shooter not to kill him. Crump also was convicted of attempted murder in the shootings of the four adults in the home and other offenses such as the aggravated robbery of money from the home.

The three surviving witnesses who testified were Alexis Schneider, Rowan’s mother; Cassandra Marsicola, who was a friend of Schneider’s; and Andre McCoy Jr., Marsicola’s boyfriend at the time. All three suffered serious injuries.

A fourth witness, Yarnell Green, boyfriend of Schneider, testified during a hearing in juvenile court in February 2021 that Crump was the shooter. But Green was later shot to death along West Federal Street after leaving a downtown tavern in an unrelated matter.

Judge D’Apolito did not allow Green’s testimony to be presented because defense attorney Lou DeFabio did not get to question Green.

A fourth person who could have testified was Kimonie Bryant, who entered into a plea agreement with prosecutors prior to the trial with a recommendation that he get 20 years to life in prison for his role in the case.

Bryant was thought to be the triggerman during the early part of the investigation and was initially the only person charged in Rowan’s death. But on Oct. 1, 2020, Green had changed his identification of the killer from Bryant to Crump. On Nov. 4, 2020, Crump was arrested in the case.

On Feb. 5, 2021, Green revealed he had changed his identification of the killer to be Crump in a hearing before Judge Theresa Dellick of Mahoning County Juvenile Court. The hearing was on whether Crump should be bound over to adult court. It was a bombshell because prior to Feb. 5, 2021, the public was unaware that Crump might be the shooter.

By the time Schneider testified at the trial, prosecutors already had told the jury in opening statements that Schneider was “struggling quite a bit with a substance abuse issue” at the time of the shootings, though she was “over three years drug-free.”

‘HIGH ALL THE TIME’

Defense attorney Lou DeFabio told jurors in opening statements that at the time of the shootings, Schneider, Marsicola and McCoy were “high all the time” and McCoy was a drug dealer.

So when Schneider and Marsicola testified about having first identified Bryant and later changed their identification to Crump, it was hard to know what to believe.

“Alexis admittedly has been back and forth since Day 1,” Mike Yacovone, lead prosecutor in the case, said in closing arguments during the trial.

Since McCoy, who had taken a plea calling for a 15-years-to-life sentence, was not only a victim, but also a co-defendant of Crump and Bryant, his testimony also raised questions.

McCoy was a co-defendant because his cellphone indicated he was texting with Bryant and Marsicola just before the shooting about robbing Green of thousands in cash Green possessed. Bryant never testified at the trial, though that is frequently a requirement of a co-defendant taking a plea.

So, the testimony of three surviving witnesses to a murder did not provide the kind of impact one might expect.

In closing arguments in Crump’s case, Yacovone acknowledged prosecutors were not “hanging our hat” on eyewitness testimony. Instead, he asked jurors to consider the extensive scientific evidence presented.

The Struthers Police Department did not have its own crime scene investigators, so it called on the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, which is part of the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, to collect and analyze physical evidence. Many BCI scientists testified at the trial regarding bullet shell casings found at the scene, the type of guns that would have most likely fired the bullets from such casings, photos and text messages taken from the phones of Crump and others and calls made from the phones.

The most convincing evidence was a video produced by a technician showing that the phones of Crump and Bryant were located on Perry Street at the time of the 1:52 a.m. shootings and that their phones were together in Youngstown in the hour or so before and after the shootings.

“The cellphones place Brandon Crump and Kimonie Bryant at 111 Perry (Street in Struthers) leading up to and at the time of the homicide,” Yacovone said.

The video was made possible by cellphone tower locational data related to the cellphones of Crump and Bryant. It showed that the cellphones Crump and Bryant — Crump was only 17 at the time — traveled lock-step with each other throughout the relevant parts of that early morning.

Also, at 1:04 a.m. and 1:07 a.m. Sept. 21, 2020, McCoy called Bryant on the phone. The phone locational data showed Bryant and Crump together at the time, Yacovone said in closing arguments. “That’s when this plan was formulated,” to rob the house in Struthers, Yacovone said.

PHONE IMAGES

Among the videos and photos taken from Crump’s phone are ones showing him holding cash and wearing a red coat “exactly as described by our victims,” about 40 minutes after the killing, Yacovone said.

“He might be my star witness,” Yacovone said of Crump. “He shows off a weapon, a Springfield XD-45 semiautomatic handgun, one week before the killing.”

Yacovone added that a BCI firearms expert testified that a Springfield .45-caliber pistol “is a very possible source for those shell casings at 111 Perry (Street).”

“We know it’s a Springfield 45 because, being proud of himself, he shows the side that shows the .45. He shows the side that says Springfield Army .45,” Yacovone said.

At 1:16 a.m. a text from Crump’s phone to a female Crump knew showed that Crump had the phone and not someone else, Yacovone said.

“Phones don’t necessarily translate into people, but in 2023 I can’t even get halfway down the street without having to turn my car around if I forgot my phone,” he said.

The much-anticipated DNA evidence that took several months to acquire because of legal wrangling showed that Crump’s DNA was on the casings, though the defense argued that a person’s DNA on shell casings does not prove that person fired the bullets that came from the casings.

Crump’s DNA also was found inside a glove at a home on Ravenwood Avenue in Youngstown Aug. 17, 2020, during which four casings were recovered that were shot from the same gun as the one used on Perry Street, Yacovone said.

COMPLICITY

Yacovone also explained during closing arguments that under Ohio’s complicity laws, it did not matter whether Crump was the person who fired the shots. He was guilty of all of the offenses even if he was just waiting in the car and not doing the shooting.

“It really doesn’t matter who the shooter is at the end of the day. We told you we believe the evidence will show that it’s Brandon Crump. I believe we have shown that it is Brandon Crump, but it doesn’t matter if he is or he isn’t. Because (the complicity law) says that a person who is complicit with another in the commission of a criminal offense is as guilty as if he or she personally performed every act constituting the offense,” he said.

“Each of these men (Brandon Crump Jr., Kimonie Bryant and Andre McCoy Jr.) assisted each other in the commission of this offense, and they shared the same criminal intent,” Yacovone said.

Yacovone said Assistant Prosecutor Jennifer Paris mentioned in opening statements that “Nobody escapes this, no one. Each one of these men were parts of a three-piece puzzle. For his efforts, Andre McCoy got shot in the head twice and a life-in-prison deal, possible parole after 15 years in prison.” He added, “Bryant will have his day in court.”

The trial began with three days of jury selection, two of those days intended to weed out anyone who had made up his or her mind about whether Crump was guilty based on media coverage of the case.

There were about four full days of testimony and a day dedicated to opening and closing arguments, along with discussions among the attorneys and the judge outside of the hearing of the jury.

It took the jury about seven hours over two days to find that Crump was guilty of 16 charges. He will be sentenced at 2:30 p.m. March 19 and could receive as much as life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Bryant, 27, is scheduled for sentencing at 9:30 a.m. April 18. McCoy, 23, has no sentencing date yet.

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