He had a front-row seat to a double homicide inside a small apartment.
So the state’s first key witness took the stand Thursday and raised his right hand.
A judge asked him the standard question: Did he swear to tell the truth?
He leaned into the microphone and responded not with one word — yes or no — but with a statement.
“I will tell the truth.”
That vow crumbled Thursday, apparently under the weight of increasing tensions surrounding the double murder trial of Charles Trotter.
Prosecutors say the truth never came out as to what the witness — a young African-American male — knew about the shooting deaths of Dexter Joseph and Marcel Lovejoy at a party at the Garden Ridge apartment complex near 100th and Fort Streets.
In fact, his account was so vague that prosecutors asked a judge to declare the witness “hostile.” That would have allowed prosecutors to confront him with prior accounts he gave of the shooting to police.
Wednesday morning, the witness had identified defendant Charles Trotter as walking into the party in a gray sweatshirt.
Then two things happened Wednesday. A would-be trial spectator, Jarrell Haynes — a cousin of Lovejoy — was shot and killed near 16th Street and Victor Avenue after he apparently had tried to attend the trial. Haynes’ aunt said he was not allowed in the courtroom because he didn’t have identification.
Haynes, 22, was shot 2 miles north of downtown about 10:45 a.m.
A little more than an hour later, a melee broke out on the fourth floor of the courthouse as the trial broke for its noon recess. Friends and family of the victims got in a brawl with friends and family members of the defendant.
Whether either event led to the witness’s reluctance Thursday was unclear.
But he clearly was, in the words of a court official, “scared to death.”
On Jan. 3, 2015, the witness had been in the apartment where Lovejoy and Joseph were gunned down — so close that the victims’ blood speckled his shoes.
Prosecutors expected him to say that Trotter shot the men. But the witness never came close.
Head down, he swiveled repeatedly in his seat. He pulled out a handkerchief and wiped away tears. Later, he lowered his head in his hands, his index fingers at his temples.
Asked what he saw, he repeatedly declared: “I don’t remember.” What did he tell Omaha police about what happened? “I don’t remember.”
At that, prosecutor John Alagaban asked him to recall what he had told Douglas County attorney investigators Thursday morning. Specifically, the prosecutor asked him if he had relayed receiving threatening phone calls Wednesday night.
The man lowered his head. He mumbled.
“I don’t remember,” he said.
The man did describe Joseph and Lovejoy getting shot. Joseph went down in the kitchen, he said. Lovejoy stumbled toward the apartment door and fell, he said.
Once shots rang out, the witness said he rushed toward the apartment’s door, right behind Lovejoy.
“He fell before he hit the door,” the witness said. “I just jumped over him. And I ran.”
The man mumbled that he didn’t remember who shot Joseph and Lovejoy.
Once prepared to cross-examine a purported murder witness, Trotter’s attorney, Douglas County Public Defender Tom Riley, had scant questions for the man. Had he been drinking? Had he smoked marijuana?
Yes, the man said, to both questions.
“Nothing further,” Riley said.
With that, the witness hustled out of the courtroom. He was escorted down a hallway, to a back elevator and out of the courthouse.
The trial is expected to extend into next week. After Wednesday’s melee, Judge Leigh Ann Retelsdorf sequestered the eight female jurors and five male jurors at an Omaha hotel.
They have not been allowed to access their smartphones or computers.
Security was tight for Thursday’s session. A courthouse sergeant warned gallery members that any outbursts would lead to being escorted out by sheriff’s deputies.
“We are not joking around today,” the sergeant told spectators.
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