A Prince George's County jury found Trone Tyrone Ashford, the accused triggerman in the Dunkin' Donuts double murder, guilty of two counts of felony murder yesterday but acquitted him of two counts of first-degree, premeditated murder.
The split verdict, reached late yesterday afternoon after nine hours of deliberation over two days, indicates that the jury may not have been able to decide whether Ashford -- who testified he was in the bathroom when the shootings occurred -- fired the shots that killed Kanu Patel, 28, and Mukesh Patel, 35, early on the morning of Oct. 15.
Because felony murder carries the same penalty as first-degree murder, Ashford, 27, still could face the death penalty, which prosecutors are seeking for the two shotgun slayings. The victims were Indian immigrants who worked long hours for little pay at the all-night Camp Springs doughnut shop. A third victim, Ashvin Patel, 44, was seriously wounded but survived.
Ashford did not react outwardly to the verdict. Circuit Court Judge E. Allen Shepherd set the penalty phase of the trial for Monday.
Defense attorney Rajesh A. Kumar said afterward that Ashford was upset by the verdict. "He cried," Kumar said.
"I'm pleased that [jurors] found him guilty of felony murder, but I'm disappointed they did not find him guilty of first-degree murder," State's Attorney Jack B. Johnson said. "Ultimately, they found he's a killer."
In addition to two counts of felony murder -- slayings committed during a robbery -- the jury found Ashford guilty of two counts of second-degree murder and one count of attempted second-degree murder.
Prosecutors had argued that Ashford shot the employees in a back room and that he and co-defendant John Lemon Epps IV, 20, poured gasoline in the shop, set it on fire and left the victims for dead. Ashvin Patel was rescued by firefighters who arrived to fight the blaze.
Prosecutors alleged that Alicia N. Holloway, 17, rifled the cash register. Holloway pleaded guilty June 4 to two counts of felony murder and could be sentenced to a maximum of 20 years in prison. Epps is awaiting trial for two counts of first-degree murder, one count of attempted murder and other charges in connection with the Dunkin' Donuts case.
The jury found Ashford not guilty of first-degree arson. It also found Ashford guilty of robbery with a deadly weapon of Kanu Patel, but not guilty of robbery with a deadly weapon of Mukesh Patel, though the evidence was the same for all charges.
During the nine-day trial, assistant state's attorneys John Maloney and Tara Harrison presented layers of circumstantial evidence that they argued proved Ashford was the triggerman.
That evidence included Ashford's signed statement to police investigators admitting that he committed the shootings, and testimony from three witnesses, one police detective and two civilians, that Ashford told them that he shot the three victims.
In addition, prosecutors presented into evidence Ashford's black, pistol-grip shotgun, which they said was the murder weapon, an assertion Ashford agreed with on the witness stand.
Holloway and Kevin Shiplett, 20, a casual friend of Ashford's who was in the getaway car while the crime unfolded, both testified that Ashford said he shot the three victims when he returned to the car from the doughnut shop. Holloway testified that she was with Epps or could see him in the front of the store while four shots rang out in the back of the eatery.
Testifying in his own defense on Tuesday, Ashford said he went into the shop intending to buy doughnuts and was surprised and scared when Epps pulled out the shotgun and announced a robbery.
Ashford testified that he went into a bathroom, where he cowered while shots rang out in the store. He also testified that he signed the statement admitting to the shooting because detectives would not give him his medication for his severly arthritic back, and wore him down during 13 hours of questioning.
The crime culminated a night of heaving drinking and marijuana smoking by Ashford and Epps, according to testimony.
Ashford, Epps and a third man also face first-degree murder charges in connection with the shotgun slaying of a Brandywine man a month before the Dunkin' Donuts murders.
They are charged in the Sept. 13 slaying of Brently Jayson Youmans, 31, who was killed during a carjacking, according to prosecutors. In that case, prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Epps, who is accused of using Ashford's shotgun to shoot Youmans.
A fourth defendant, Donnie Dawayne Comber, 26, was convicted of first-degree murder in the Youmans case last month.
CAPTION: Two victims of the double murder on Oct. 15 were Indian immigrants who worked long hours for little pay at the Camp Springs shop. Two other suspects are charged in the crime, in which a third victim was injured but survived.