Jury: Pittsburgh man guilty of first-degree murder

Jury convicts Pittsburgh man of first-degree murder

September 13, 2013
Henry Dion Williams, center, is escorted by Washington County sheriff’s deputies to the Washington County Courthouse earlier this week. - Jim McNutt / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

A Washington County jury never heard the testimony of a witness who was going to tell them a Pittsburgh man admitted to shooting Rensfield Donald Jarvis to death in May 2012 outside a West End bar, but the five men and seven women convicted him anyway.

The jurors had a choice of convicting Henry Dion Williams, 30, of first-degree murder, which is pre-meditated killing; third-degree murder, which is killing with malice; or acquitting him. Their first-degree murder conviction carries a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment. They also found Williams guilty of two firearms charges.

Judge John DiSalle told members of the defendant’s and victim’s families he would tolerate no outbursts in the courtroom, and calm prevailed. As sheriff’s deputies escorted Williams, in handcuffs and shackles, back to the county jail, he and his mother called out their love for each other. Meanwhile, a floor below, before entering the district attorney’s office, Jarvis’ family members wept copiously.

Members of the jury, selected Monday, began deliberating the case at about 4 p.m. Friday and reached a verdict a little more than an hour later.

Williams’ public defender, Glenn Alterio, Friday morning revealed in court, out of the jury’s earshot, that Williams planned to deny his involvement in the shooting, and on that basis, Alterio had prepared a defense.

However, in light of possible testimony from a recently-interviewed prosecution witness, Williams wanted to change his version of events to shooting Jarvis in self-defense.

DiSalle called that development “flabbergasting … As a defense strategy, this is unusual to say the least” to admit as part of the court record that a defendant planned to tell a completely different story while under oath.

The potential surprise witness was identified as Desiree Wilson, formerly of Washington, who drove Williams from Washington to Swissvale just after the shooting.

First Assistant District Attorney Michael Lucas said police had just tracked down Wilson, who was going to testify that Williams that night admitted shooting Jarvis. DiSalle said Thursday he would permit Wilson to testify, and Lucas said she was present at the courthouse Friday morning.

But Wilson was never called to the witness stand as Alterio carried his objection into Friday morning. DiSalle reconsidered his ruling, deciding that while the prosecution could not include her as part of its case-in-chief, Lucas could call her as a rebuttal witness.

“Her information was never known directly from her until Thursday morning. This was not a person who was known to (police),” Lucas explained after the trial.

Alterio said he and Williams would have liked to have had more time to consider his options.

“I’m sitting here (conferring) half an hour before trial is supposed to start as opposed to sitting in my office two months ago with Mr. Williams,” Alterio argued, adding that he had no time to call additional witnesses to bolster his case.

“The judge made a proper ruling,” Lucas said after the conclusion of the trial. “We were put in a position of a close call.”

Although the prosecution did not have to present a motive for the shooting, Lucas hinted at bad blood between Williams and the victim because a friend of Jarvis’ supposedly pulled a gun on Williams in Washington’s Erie-Highland neighborhood. Shots were allegedly fired, but Lucas said he knew of no police report of the incident, only “generic information that it occurred on the hill. There are a lot of shots-fired calls in the city.”

In the end, Williams declined to testify in his own defense. With the jury absent from the courtroom, the judge explained to the defendant his right to remain silent. Williams used the opportunity to question what he interpreted as stern looks from the bench and the told DiSalle, “I don’t want you to have hard feelings toward me.”

The judge replied, “No, I’m not holding a grudge.”

The defense Friday produced a witness, Anita Cunningham, who lives a block away from Pickle’s bar. She was smoking a cigarette on the porch of her Ewing Street home when she heard three shots fired and saw someone “who walked like a white man” heading away from the vicinity of the bar.

Alterio also recalled to the witness stand a Washington police officer who did an initial crime report, noting that April Lash, a prosecution witness, told him she also heard three shots but didn’t see what happened.

Along with Lash, Kayla Cunningham and Mark Jones, all of Washington, were outside Pickle’s bar. For the prosecution, they described the men exiting the establishment, with Williams following Jarvis, and then hearing the three shots that left Jarvis dead.

Video surveillance captured part of the scene, though not the shooting itself. Cameras inside the bar also showed Jarvis extending his hand to Williams, who rebuffed him.

Alterio said he plans to appeal the conviction based on errors he believes were committed during the trial, but he declined to elaborate.

After the conclusion of the trial, Lucas said, “It was clear the defendant was not someone who was amiable toward the victim.” Although the jurors did not hear about a possible motive, Lucas said, “Whatever the reason behind it, no reason was good enough to kill in cold blood Mr. Jarvis.”

Williams was returned to the county jail, where he has been held without bond since June 2012 when he was arrested in McKeesport. DiSalle said he will schedule sentencing within 90 days. In addition to the life sentence on the murder charge, the two firearms charges combined have a maximum sentence of 12 years imprisonment.

Williams was found guilty of possessing a firearm without a license and, with a misdemeanor conviction of having a weapon on school property in Fayette County in 2006, being someone who was not permitted to possess a firearm.

A resident of Vandergrift, Armstrong County, testified that the murder weapon, a .375 handgun, was stolen from his home in March 2007, but another man was prosecuted for that crime.

Barbara S. Miller covers politics, Washington County government and a variety of other topics for the Observer-Reporter. She is a graduate of Washington & Jefferson College, majoring in English and history. Follow her on Twitter @reporterbarb.

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