Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Da Withdraws Charges in Double Homicide Case

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Da Withdraws Charges in Double Homicide Case

Article excerpt

The Allegheny County district attorney's office on Friday withdrew charges against three men accused of killing a father and his 7-year-old son during a 2017 drug deal gone wrong in Swissvale.

The charges were withdrawn against Donavan L. Wilson, 25, of Rankin, Brandon Barnett, 27, of East Pittsburgh, and his brother, Jacqua Barnett, 31, of Homestead, during a brief hearing before Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Edward J. Borkowski.

The charges could be refiled at a later date.

The three men had been accused of killing Jo Lawrence Stewart and his father, Walter Stewart, 29, during a shootout on Dec. 26, 2017, at a house in the 1900 block of Columbia Ave.

The prosecution said Mr. Stewart went to the home with his son to buy marijuana and was ambushed.

Defense attorneys said evidence in the case was inconclusive and said whoever fired at Mr. Stewart did so in self-defense. Mr. Stewart, they said, brought his son to a drug deal and hid the drugs in his son's Ninja Turtles backpack.

A key witness in the case, James Backus, who was in the home during the shooting and testified at a 2018 preliminary hearing, died earlier this year, prompting the prosecution's withdrawal, according to court records.

"The death of the witness created evidentiary issues that we cannot overcome with the remaining evidence," DA spokesman Mike Manko said.

Mr. Backus gave conflicting testimony at previous court appearances, admitting to investigators that he regularly smoked crack cocaine and had consumed about three-fourths of a quart of fortified wine before the shooting.

Defense attorneys said the district attorney's office never officially informed them of the death of the witness prior to Friday's proceedings. And attorney Ralph Karsh, representing Brandon Barnett, had previously filed a motion for sanctions against the district attorney's office for failing to turn over some discovery material. …

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