Prosecutors and defense lawyers rested their cases Tuesday in the retrial of two brothers accused of dousing a pit bull with an accelerant and lighting her on fire, with jurors poised to begin deliberating Wednesday afternoon.
Prosecutors called their last of eight witnesses before lunch Tuesday, questioning a state Department of Juvenile Services staff member who said in brief testimony that one of the defendants, Travers Johnson, was not on house arrest at the time the dog was burned. Johnson told police in a taped interview, played for jurors Monday, that he could not have burned the dog because he was on house arrest.
Defense attorneys for Johnson and his brother Tremayne Johnson called two witnesses who both testified briefly Tuesday afternoon. Their questioning focused on whether police mishandled evidence and investigation of another potential suspect.
Lawyers are scheduled to make closing arguments Wednesday morning, nearly two weeks after making opening arguments. Prosecutors acknowledged to Judge Emanuel Brown they have a tall order in presenting a narrative to jurors. Their case was marked with a handful of setbacks that weren't seen in the Johnsons' first trial, which ended in a hung jury in February 2011.
"The burden is on the state," Assistant State's Attorney Jennifer Rallo said, asking Brown for an hour to make closing arguments, twice as much as each defendant's lawyers requested. "It's necessary for the state to go over the evidence in detail to the jury."
Brown said he expects to give 45 minutes to the prosecution and each brother's defense.
The Johnsons are accused of burning the pit bull, named Phoenix by rescuers, in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood of West Baltimore on May 27, 2009. The dog was euthanized days later.
Sharon May, lawyer for Travers Johnson, focused her case on whether police thoroughly investigated a lead into a separate suspect. She called Det. Syreeta Teel, the police officer who came upon the burning dog and earlier was called to testify by prosecutors. Teel said she didn't recognize the name of the suspect and didn't know how deeply detectives investigated it.
Defense lawyers for Tremayne Johnson called Craig Beyler, a fire protection engineer, to the stand as an expert witness. Beyler said police mishandled clothing seized from the Johnsons' South Baltimore home by mixing two pairs of jeans and a pair of sneakers in one bag. The clothing contained traces of an ignitable substance that could not be identified, but Beyler said it could have been a common chemical used in sneakers that might have transferred from the shoes to the jeans.
Prosecutors' arguments linking the brothers to the burning centered on a police surveillance video recorded from atop a pole near the crime scene. There was no DNA, fingerprints or other forensic evidence connecting the suspects to the crime.
Baltimore Police Sgt. Jarron Jackson, then a detective who had spent years observing the neighborhood, said he could spot the Johnsons in the tape walking the dog minutes before the burning and running from the direction of the crime scene while the dog was in flames. A bystander, Tiera Goodman, told police soon after the incident she too saw the brothers run from the scene.
But the prosecutors' argument took a hit when Goodman refused to testify in the retrial. A video of her testimony from the first trial was played instead. Later, Brown barred Jackson from identifying Travers Johnson in the video.