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Appeals court orders new trial

YOUNGSTOWN — The 7th District Court of Appeals has granted a new trial to Lavontae E. Knight, 28, in a murder case in which he was convicted in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court in the Dec. 30, 2018, killing of Trevice Harris and wounding Harris’ girlfriend in a car on the city’s South Side.

Knight, of Ferndale Avenue, was convicted at trial of aggravated murder, attempted aggravated murder, two counts of aggravated robbery, two counts of kidnapping and felonious assault and was sentenced to 58 years to life in prison in September of 2022.

The appeals court found last week that Judge John Durkin committed “cumulative errors that deprived (Knight) of a fair trial,” according to its ruling.

One was when Durkin denied defense attorney Dave Betras time to study and prepare for a hearing where the judge and attorneys questioned jurors about a remark one juror made to others about being afraid because she thought she was being followed when she left the courthouse one afternoon during Knight’s trial.

The appeals panel also found that Durkin erred in deciding that the remedy for a former assistant prosecutor not timely turning over evidence to the defense was to postpone the trial.

The decision did not

indicate what type of more aggressive remedy it thought was appropriate, but the defense had requested that the case be dismissed.

The ruling also stated that the appeals panel found that “While these errors alone do not constitute reversible errors, the cumulative effect of them constituted a deprivation of a fair trial.”

JURY COMMUNICATION

The first error involved a matter that was raised just after the jury found Knight guilty and whether Knight should get a new trial because a juror had potentially tainted the jury and its guilty verdicts by reporting to fellow jurors that she feared that she had been followed home by two women who were sitting through the trial. She said the day in question was prior to the jury reaching its verdict in the case. Betras’ motion stated that the conversation lasted a minute or two.

Durkin’s ruling denying a new trial stated that he individually questioned the 12 jurors and was satisfied that they were being honest in saying they decided Knight’s guilt based on the evidence and not on the fears the juror raised about being followed.

According to The Vindicator archives, Durkin said the sheriff’s office and Youngstown Police Department investigated the matter, and it showed that two people attending the trial “just happened to follow the juror the same way home for a period of time.”

The appeals panel’s ruling provided more details regarding the questioning of the jurors. It stated that the juror told the judge and the attorneys that when she drove away from the parking area, she saw a Burgundy SUV containing two females following her. They had been sitting through the trial, the juror said.

The juror was heading to Austintown and was near Belle Vista Avenue on Youngstown’s West Side before the SUV stopped following her, she said. The females never approached her or said anything to her, but she mentioned the matter to her fellow jurors the next day when they convened for deliberations.

When the judge and attorneys brought the jurors back to the courthouse after their service was over and questioned them, they all said they heard the woman’s remark but none thought the remark affected their decision on Knight’s guilt or innocence.

The appeals ruling stated that even though the jurors were questioned and the attorneys were allowed to participate, Durkin “should have permitted (Betras and the prosecutor’s office) some time before conducting the” interviews. The reason is that Betras asked for more time to “absorb this unique situation, conduct legal research and determine pertinent questions to submit for the court to ask each juror.” The judge denied that request.

EVIDENCE DELAY

The other circumstances mentioned are the issue of evidence that prosecutors failed to turn over to the defense until Feb. 22, 2022, about two weeks before Knight was scheduled to go to trial March 7, 2022.

The evidence, which was obtained by prosecutors in April 2019, showed that the car in which the homicide took place was analyzed for DNA. It showed that Knight’s DNA was not in the back seat of the car used to kidnap and kill Harris.

However, the DNA of another man was found. That man is the brother of a woman who lived near the location where the surviving victim thought she and Harris were kidnapped. The prosecution asserted that a violation of evidence rules only happens when evidence favorable to the defense is provided after trial.

Also, the judge had disqualified former assistant county prosecutor Dawn Cantalamessa from continuing to prosecute Knight in another one of Knight’s cases from 2018 because the judge found that Cantalmessa made false statements to the court and withheld evidence favorable to the defense in that case, the ruling stated.

The appeals panel questioned Durkin’s finding that failure to turn over the evidence in the Trevice Harris case was not a violation of a criminal rule related to pretrial evidence.

“Due to the unique circumstances surrounding (the Harris) case, we find that the trial court’s grant of a continuance was an inadequate remedy for the prosecution’s failure to provide the defense with the” DNA evidence, the appeals panel ruled.

The DNA was found in the same seat the surviving victim said the killer was using before he exited the car and shot Harris, fatally wounding him, the ruling noted. The surviving victim, Harris’ girlfriend, testified she knew Knight because she had been at a funeral with Harris for Knight’s brother, and Harris had spoken with Knight there, the ruling stated.

The ruling was written by Judge Mark Hanni with concurrence from Judge Carol Robb.

It concluded that because Durkin found multiple problems with Cantalamessa’s promptness in turning over evidence, a more severe sanction was warranted.

“The lengthy delay in disclosing the favorable evidence in this case, the questionable tactics used by the same assistant prosecutor in another of (Knight’s) cases, and (Durkin’s) leniency to (prosecutors) in (Knight’s) other case for similar conduct lead us to conclude that more than a (postponement) in this case was warranted,” the ruling stated.

Appeals court judge Cheryl Waite dissented from the majority opinion, restating remarks from another appeals court ruling — that despite the large number of safeguards provided to assure a fair trial, “and taking into account the reality of of the human fallibility of the participants, there can be no such thing as an error-free perfect trial, and that the Constitution does not guarantee such a trial.”

Staff file photo / Ed Runyan
Lavontae Knight, left, is seen with his attorney, David Betras, during Knight’s sentencing hearing in September 2022 in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court. Knight was sentenced to 58 years to life in a 2019 South Side murder case, but he will get a new trial, the 7th District Court of Appeals has ruled.

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