D.C. Court of Appeals overturns conviction in ’08 Trinidad shooting, cites judge’s error

Correction: The article incorrectly said that eight men were charged in the shooting death of 13-year-old Alonzo Robinson in 2008. It further incorrectly said that Marcus Brown was convicted, and his conviction overturned, in connection with that shooting. The eight men were charged in connection with several related shootings, and Brown was never charged directly in Robinson’s death.

Residents of the District’s Trinidad neighborhood still talk about the summer of 2008, when a 13-year-old boy visiting from Alabama was killed, an innocent victim of a drive-by shooting.

The death of Alonzo Robinson — and other violence in the Northeast Washington community about the same time — led to controversial military-style checkpoints as police sought to prevent further bloodshed by asking motorists to explain why they were passing through.

Eight men were charged in several related shootings at the time, and three pleaded guilty. But only one was convicted in court, and that conviction was overturned last month. That has prosecutors wondering whether to retry him and some residents frustrated with the mixed outcomes of the investigations into a challenging and dangerous time in their community.

Robinson, who was shot in his back, and six others were struck in a series of incidents on July 19, 2008. Five men were tried in D.C. Superior Court over five weeksin April 2011, the testimony of the man who pleaded guilty a key component of the prosecution’s case.

Only Marcus Brown was convicted, found guilty of assault with intent to kill and related offenses. He was sentenced to 24 years in prison.


Alonzo Robinson, 13, was shot to death July 19, 2008 in the Trinidad neighborhood. (Courtesy of DC Police)

The D.C. Court of Appeals’ Jan. 24 overturning of Brown’s conviction is a blow to District prosecutors and police, who were intent on locking up the men responsible for Robinson’s killing and related shootings but struggled to find credible witnesses.

The teen, who was visiting an ailing grandmother in the District, was standing a few steps from his mother when he was shot during a gun battle between neighborhood crews who fired indiscriminately into a crowd.

In a unanimous decision, a three-judge appeals panel ruled that the judge who oversaw the 2011 trial, Thomas J. Motley, failed to properly instruct the jury after it returned guilty verdicts on five of the six charges Brown faced.

Each juror except one told Motley they agreed with the verdict, so Motley told the jury to deliberate until all of them agreed. The appeals court ruled that he failed to warn them about pressuring the dissenting juror into siding with the majority.

“As a result, the potential for coercion, while not the highest we have encountered, was still ‘especially high’ for the dissenting juror and high as well even for the others,” wrote Senior Judge John M. Ferren, in the panel’s ruling.

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office declined to say whether prosecutors planned to retry Brown, who is in prison in connection with a different case.

Eight men were charged in the shooting. Jeff Tuckson pleaded guilty to assault with a dangerous weapon, while charges were dropped against Kevin Gross in exchange for a guilty plea in an unrelated federal drug and assault case. Gross was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2011.

Kenneth Williams pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the case, and he was sentenced to 22 years in prison in April.

Prosecutors took Brown and four other men — Antonio McAllister, William McCorkle and twin brothers Joshua and Christian Benton — to trial in connection with the July 2008 shooting..

But they had little evidence against the men: There was no DNA, and only two witnesses emerged, one who had sought a deal with prosecutors in an unrelated case in exchange for his testimony. And defense attorneys attacked the credibility of Williams — who said he was in one of the vehicles that sped through the neighborhood during the shooting — by questioning inconsistencies in the accounts he gave authorities as well as his admissions that he had used PCP, marijuana and ecstasy and had mental health issues.

McCorkle and the Benton brothers were acquitted. The jury deadlocked on McAllister, who authorities said was one of the shooters. Prosecutors in February 2012 dropped their charges against him shortly before he was to be retried. He is serving three years in prison on an unrelated weapons offense.

A jury later found McCorkle guilty of first-degree murder in a triple homicide in Trinidad two months before Robinson was shot. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Brown is serving a 10-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to obstruction of justice during McCorkle’s October 2011 murder trial.

Prince George’s County police are searching for Joshua Benton in connection with the Nov. 21 fatal shooting of Sharod Darnell James, 31, outside a Seat Pleasant gas station.

Some Trinidad residents who recall the violence and checkpoints expressed frustration with the outcomes of the cases even as some of the defendants currently face prison time. Maxine Reed, 35, said it was “not fair” that so few have been convicted in the Robinson case.

The Robinson case was a high priority for then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier and Peter Nickles, then the attorney general. Trinidad was plagued by gang activity, shootings and homicides, and the police checkpoints were reminiscent of tactics police employed during the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s. A federal appeals court later ruled the checkpoints unconstitutional.

“This neighborhood is a lot better now, but those checkpoints were just wrong,” said Reginald Johnson, 55.

Robinson’s father said in an interview from his Alabama home that he hopes Brown is retried.

“I want him brought to justice,” said Felix Kennebrew. “I want them all brought to justice. I want the truth to come out.”

He was supportive of the challenge investigators had in finding witnesses in the case.

“Seems like somebody would have seen something,” Kennebrew said. “I don’t know if witnesses were scared or what.”

Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

Keith Alexander covers crime, specifically D.C. Superior Court cases for The Washington Post. He has covered dozens of crime stories from Banita Jacks, the Washington woman charged with killing her four daughters, to the murder trial of intern Chandra Levy.
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