Twin brothers' animal cruelty retrial begins again

Baltimore City Circuit Judge Emanuel Brown will decide whether a jury can see a police surveillance video that prosecutors say ties twin brothers Travers and Tremayne Johnson to a pit bull that was set on fire in 2009.

The second trial in the animal cruelty case opened Friday with a series of requests by the brothers' defense attorneys for Brown to throw out key pieces of the prosecution's evidence, including the video and a gas can.

Brown held off ruling on the motions until at least Monday, when the trial continues. Jury selection could begin then.

The brothers, now 20, are accused of covering a young female pit bull, later named Phoenix by rescue workers, with an accelerant and setting her ablaze in West Baltimore. The dog was euthanized days later.

The video was a sticking point in the previous trial, which ended last year with a hung jury. The jurors deliberated for three days, but a police sergeant's narration of the silent video, recorded from a surveillance camera on a utility pole, wasn't enough to convince one of the 12 jurors of the brothers' guilt. The 35-minute video captures portions of the event, the prosecution says.

"This is a piece of evidence that needs to go to the jury," prosecutor Janet Hankin said.

Defense attorney Andrew Northrup called Robert W. Sanderson of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., as an expert in video analysis. Sanderson told the judge that the video from the street camera was unreliable because of its low resolution.

Sanderson said the frames that capture images on the camera are based on a mathematical algorithm that sometimes includes "hiccups" or errors. For instance, Sanderson pointed out a place on the video were a passerby appears to be headless in a frame.

The defense team also tried to persuade the judge to exclude a gas can, which prosecutors tried to link to the case, from the evidence because neither the brothers' DNA nor fingerprints were found on it.

Likewise, the Johnsons' lawyers said, two pairs of jeans and sneakers should be thrown out as evidence. During the last trial, an expert witness testified that although the clothing contained traces of a potentially ignitable substance, the substance could have come from the manufacturing of the shoes, not the dousing of the pit bull.

"It creates a cloud of guilt," Northrup said. "It's being thrown out there to tar both of them."

Prosecutor Jennifer Rallo argued that the clothing was found in the Johnsons' home and matched descriptions of what each was seen wearing that day.

Travers Johnson was charged with burglary and attempted murder in separate 2010 incidents, and is set for trial in that case next month. Tremayne Johnson was charged with marijuana possession shortly after the first Phoenix trial ended. His trial in that case was also scheduled for Friday, but information on its outcome was not immediately available.

Baltimore Sun reporter Tricia Bishop contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad