The double-homicide trial of Gregory Avery began Thursday morning, but it’s the credibility and motive of the prosecution’s main witness that his defense team hopes to put on trial.
Defense attorney Michael DeRiso said his client was falsely accused by the other defendant in the 2009 slayings, Phillip Whitlock, who pleaded guilty to the killings last year. DeRiso claimed Whitlock is now cooperating with authorities to “save his own skin.”
“This will come to whether you believe Phillip Whitlock,” DeRiso said in his opening statement.
But Assistant District Attorney Michael Lucas said investigators plan to use a variety of witness testimony and newfound ballistics evidence to show Avery, 25, of Washington, also was involved in the two killings.
Marquis Taylor, 24, and Troy Saunders Jr., 23, were gunned down in the early hours of Feb. 16, 2009, outside the now-defunct Cabaret West bar on West Chestnut Street in Washington. Lindsay Jolly, who was with the two men at the bar, was injured in the shooting.
Avery faces two counts of criminal homicide and one charge of conspiracy. He wasn’t arrested until April 2012, after Whitlock agreed to plead guilty to third-degree murder, aggravated assault and conspiracy just before his trial. Whitlock, 31, is awaiting sentencing while cooperating with prosecutors.
“This is a case in which you cannot judge a book by its cover,” Lucas said. “It’s taken time. It’s what happens, ladies and gentlemen, when you battle the code of silence.”
Lucas walked the jury of six men and six women through the events nearly five years ago in which Taylor was shot eight times by two different weapons and Saunders was shot once in the back while running from the bar. Lucas said it was Avery who shot Saunders from behind while wielding a .22-caliber handgun.
Lucas said the investigation that led to Avery’s arrest took so long because of the “don’t snitch” mentality illustrated by some of the key witnesses in the case.
“You’re going to learn that this is a place where not everyone cooperates with police,” Lucas said. “You’re going to learn this is a place where people live in fear of cooperating with police.”
DeRiso said the jury would have to decide whether to trust the testimony of Whitlock, who he claimed has changed his story many times since his arrest a week after the shooting.
“You know who likes to talk?” DeRiso said. “Phillip Whitlock. He likes to talk.”
Authorities immediately targeted Whitlock as a suspect, but he wasn’t arrested until the following week when he checked himself into Washington Hospital with a bullet lodged in his ankle.
“He ran out of options,” DeRiso said. “He had to turn himself in.”
Lucas said Whitlock’s eventual cooperation helped, although other evidence also led to Avery.
He pointed to ballistics evidence that two different weapons were used in the shootings. Whitlock has told the prosecution he fired a 9 mm handgun, while Avery used the .22-caliber handgun. Bullet casings from that gun also were matched to shells found at a shooting in late 2008 in which Avery is now the prime suspect.
Avery, wearing a grey shirt and checkered tie, leaned back in his chair and propped his chin up with his left hand during the opening statements.
The trial is expected to continue into late next week. It is not clear which day Whitlock will testify.