Crowds of family, friends, and reporters greeted Terrell Johnson when he was released from prison having served 18 years for a murder he did not commit. Updated articles follow this original journalism from September 21, 2003. “Terrell Johnson admits to being a street dope peddler but says he’s no killer,”
by Bill Moushey.
Over the past two years, students at Point Park College examined court records, interviewed witnesses and examined the crime scene to piece together the Johnson story before their graduations. They are Point Park graduate students Fran Aiello, Bernie Bowes and Melanie Canavan, and Point Park undergraduate students Kristin Cox, Katie Lockward, April Lawson, Amy Pastorak and Danielle Smith.
Terrell Johnson admits to being a street dope peddler but says he’s no killer.
Nonetheless, he’s spent the last nine years in prison for killing a police informant in a case involving the notorious Hazelwood Mob, during the 1990s one of the most deadly street gangs in Pittsburgh.
While he says he never belonged to the street gang, he’s doing a life term largely on the testimony of a troubled woman who not only tied him to the Hazelwood Mob, but said she watched Johnson and two others gun down a prized police informer, even if her testimony was full of gaping holes. Even the witness — who has been mired in drug and associated legal problems for years — seemed to back off from her statements in an interview.
While Johnson languishes in prison for the rest of his life, the other two men accused in the 1994 gang killing, Harold Cabbagestalk, who was charged twice with murder but never convicted and Dorian Moorefield, whose family has steeped connections to the Hazelwood Mob, were able to prevail over the suspect testimony due to more effective legal representation and were acquitted of murder charges. Cabbagestalk was convicted of conspiracy.
But with most of his appeals exhausted, Johnson, who has protested his Innocence all along, has little chance of ever going free.
“It was an exchange,” Johnson said of the eyewitness testimony against him during an interview at the maximum security State Correctional Institution at Greene. “She saved her life in exchange for mine. Why was this lady’s life worth more than mine?”
“Terrell Johnson is a total victim in this case. He should have been found not guilty,” said John Elash, who served as penalty phase attorney in Johnson’s case and lead attorney for one of the other accused. “Instead, he is doing life in prison based on the lies of a stone crack head.”
“I think it’s a situation that a jury made up its mind before it heard the testimony,” said James DePasquale, Johnson’s court-appointed trial lawyer who admits he was ineffective in representing Johnson. “It was willing to accept square pegs in round holes,” he said.
A detailed investigation by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Innocence Institute of Western Pennsylvania not only shows what he is saying may be true, but that the jury of his peers did not hear the whole story during Johnson’s trial.
Prosecutors told Johnson’s lawyers about some of McBryde’s life of crime that included fraud, theft, prostituting her children and using them to steal. And while defense lawyers were told she was caught shoplifting at a drug store while under Pittsburgh Police protection, Johnson’s lawyers did not know she was also caught stealing furnishings from a safe-house hotel or that McBryde has used as many as 11 different names and six different Social Security numbers during a life of crime the Johnson jury never heard about. McBryde also received more sentence reductions and case dismissals than prosecutors admitted.
From her initial statements to a coroner’s inquest to trial, McBryde, who not only had a long-term crack addiction but extremely poor eyesight, changed her testimony on her point of view of the killing. At first, she said she hid in bushes in front of a house to watch the brutal murder. But when she realized her view would have been obstructed from that spot, she changed her testimony to say she secreted herself in bushes at the side of the home to watch the killing. Johnson’s trial attorney did not cross examine McBryde on that switch because an investigator did not adequately examine the crime scene, leaving the lawyer to work from prosecutor’s photographs that did not show the obstructed view. In the later trials, lawyers took juries to the crime scene and produced testimony from the property’s owner who said McBryde could not have been at the second viewpoint. He said he lost the key to the gate lock 10 years ago. It has been locked since.
McBryde testified she heard one shot, then another as much as two minutes later after she secreted herself in the bushes. She said Robinson did not fall to the ground until after the second shot. Other witnesses said the shots were simultaneous and a forensic expert said either one of them would have put her down immediately.
McBryde said she walked to the home of one of the killer’s to provide massage services in the aftermath of the killing. Her customer, Dorian Moorefield’s brother Gary, has airline tickets showing he was in Atlanta the day of Verna Robinson’s killing. Two other people say they spent the entire day and night with McBryde. At the time of the murder, they say McBryde was in their Hazelwood home engaging in prostitution for drugs three blocks away from the scene.
A woman and a man never put on the witness stand say Johnson was in their house almost a half-mile away the entire night of the murder. While the entire case was built on a depraved drug addict’s testimony, and Johnson’s trial attorney told his jury about Johnson’s alibi, he decided not to put the alibi witnesses on the stand because they were of questionable credibility and scared. He later admitted under oath that decision rendered him ineffective.
Verna Robinson, like many young black women in Hazelwood, grew up fast in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The life she knew in Hazelwood was a microcosm of the middle class neighborhood’s decline since the belching mills along the Monongahela River went down. If the closing of the mills ripped at the neighborhood’s financial base, another scourge tore apart its heart: crack cocaine and the street gang violence that accompanied it. Verna Robinson got caught in its grips and in the year prior to her death, she had hit rock bottom.
She might have used cocaine to endure the pain of devastating tragedy suffered since childhood. Raised by a single mother after her father disappeared, she watched as one of her brothers got sent to prison for 20 years on a robbery conviction. Another brother, Eugene “Butchie” Robinson died after being shot 14-times in 1992. Police charged Cabbagestalk with the killing, but later dismissed the case after an eyewitness changed her story and refused to testify against him. It was the second time prosecutors dropped a murder case against Cabbagestalk due to recanted testimony. Those murders remain unsolved.
While she despised the gangsters over her brother’s death, her addiction kept her in constant contact with drug dealers and other criminals associated with them. The dope life also brought her into regular contact with women like Dolly McBryde, then 30, another crack cocaine addict whose fortunes would inexorably be tied to her testimony about Robinson’s death. Their days were spent concocting schemes, shoplifting ventures, finding ways to prostitute themselves and just about anything else they could do to raise money for drugs.
By the spring of 1994, Robinson had come to a crossroads.
Drugs had ravaged her to the point that Hazelwood folk say she would prostitute herself for a few dollars or less to procure even one small rock of crack. Even drug dealers say she was so consumed with crack that she had no means to maintain her habit. A single mother at that point, she finally decided to make a determined effort to get off drugs. Her mother said Verna was free of dope for two months on the night she died.
It was during that tumultuous time that Robinson made a decision that she hoped could keep her away from the dealers while exacting some vengeance for her brother’s murder.
At the time, the Hazelwood Mob held a reign of terror over the area. It was common knowledge on the streets that anyone who told police anything about as many as 10 unsolved murders and other violent crimes attributed to the street gang would die. Despite that, Verna Robinson told police in November 1993 she watched a drive-by shooting in which Hazelwood Mobster Anthony “Little Anthony” Griffin, a juvenile, was part of a crew who fired a shotgun into the face and back of Eric Godfrey, whose family was in a dispute with the gang. Godfrey survived.
Because police knew of previous cases where witnesses associated with Hazelwood Mob cases had been threatened, Robinson was placed under Pittsburgh Police protection for a time. Eventually, she moved back to her mother’s home in the epicenter of Hazelwood Mob turf. Police say she refused their offers of protection. Her mother says her daughter moved home because she didn’t have money to pay rent and utilities on an apartment police found for her.
Within weeks of her decision to testify against Griffin, Robinson had another encounter–this time with street-level drug dealer Johnson.
She had a long standing debt of less than $100 to Johnson when he encountered her on some decrepit city steps just off Hazelwood Avenue. She later filed simple assault charges against him, stating he beat her over the delinquent debt. Johnson says she did owe him money, but he maintains she fled as soon as she saw him and fell down the steps. A man with Robinson at the time later signed an affidavit corroborating that, even if a jury would never hear it. Despite that contention, at trial, the assault would provide prosecutors with a motive putting Johnson in the Hazelwood Mob and in the killing. Johnson, who never testified, says that is patently wrong.
“I didn’t even know she was a witness (in the Griffin case). I didn’t know nothing about none of this stuff,” he said from prison.
Johnson moved with his mother and brother into Hazelwood as a child. By the time he turned 18-years-old, he had dropped out of school and done six months in a juvenile boot camp for drug-related crimes. Then it was back to the streets, where he said he sold his dope as a “lone wolf,” or unaffiliated to the Hazelwood Mob. He said he knew the gangsters, but was not part of it.
Local cops say that is nonsense. They say anyone selling drugs in Hazelwood in that era would be franchised by the street gang, or else.
Despite Johnson’s contentions, shortly after Dolly McBryde told her story to police, his role grew from an independent street dealer to being part of a team of Hazelwood Mob hit men charged with capitol murder.
“They tied me in with these dudes that I prided myself in staying away from,” he said.
On the day before she died, Verna Robinson had two court dates, one to face Johnson in a preliminary hearing over her charges of simple assault against him, the other in juvenile court to provide testimony against Griffin in the Godfrey case.
She was already at the Allegheny County Courthouse when she found both hearings were postponed.
Two Pittsburgh police detectives gave her a ride to her mother’s Almeda Street home, flipping her $20 before dropping the prized witness off in the heart of Hazelwood Mob turf.
Her mother said she was outraged when the cops arrived with Verna.
“People were dropping like flies around here. I was getting shaky in my own life because there were so many people shooting people,” Barbara Robinson said.
While police contend her daughter refused protection, she says police told her they had found a safe haven for Verna in East Liberty, but they did not have enough money to cover her rent and utility bills.
They came to me and said, “its going to cost $1,500 a month to take care of my daughter,”said Barbara Robinson, who had no money. “I said ‘they are going to kill my child!’”
Barbara Robinson said police told her “nothing is going to happen to her.”
The steamy night of July 21, 1994 led most folks in Hazelwood outside to sit, talk, drink and watch their children play until past midnight.
Verna Robinson mellowed out from her stressful day drinking beer from a Styrofoam cup poured from a 16-ounce can of Stroh’s she purchased with some of the money the cops gave her. As the night wore on, she listened to gospel music on a Walkman as she pranced around the streets.
Shortly after 1 a.m., Barbara Robinson heard the first shot.
“I was upstairs in the bedroom closing the window when I heard the shot, BANG! Oh my God! Before I could get to the door, I heard another shot. Somebody was banging on my door, ‘Ms. Barb, Verna’s in the street, she’s done been shot.’ I came back through the house and went out the front and saw her lying there.”
Her daughter was dead.
The faint sounds of gospel music from Verna’s Walkman headset wafted through the air. Later, McBryde would not only have no recollection of what Robinson was wearing, but never mentioned her headphones.
“I couldn’t say nothing. I just picked up her hand–the music was playing, then I went back into the house,” Barbara Robinson said.
One area resident offered police descriptions of the assailants. She described them as Dorian Moorefield, a man who resembled Cabbagestalk and a kid between 13-14 years old, much smaller with lighter skin than Johnson’s dark complexion.
Dolly McBryde’s name does not appear on any initial police reports.
The Robinson murder was big news in Pittsburgh because of her status as a witness.
Within days of the murder, Johnson learned his name had appeared as a suspect in a newspaper article due to the assault charge.
Johnson went to police and claimed he had witnesses to prove he was in a house several blocks away at the time of the murder. He has never wavered from that claim. Police released him, but told him not to leave town.
Two-and-a-half weeks later, Dolly McBryde was caught shoplifting at Century III Mall. She had several outstanding warrants for various theft-related cases and for failing to appear in court. She also faced more than 30 violations of earlier probationary sentences that could have caused a judge to imprison her for many years. On her arrest, she told mall police she had information about the Robinson murder. She wanted a deal.
Pittsburgh Police detectives met with her shortly after her arrival at the Allegheny County Jail. The cops say they talked with her, but because she was under the influence of drugs, only took a four-paragraph statement before she was sent to the first of two drug rehabilitation programs. She would be tossed out of one of them for trying to procure drugs.
A state welfare program paid the initial costs. The Allegheny County District Attorney would pick up almost $10,000 of the final tab for rehab, housing, food and clothing before she testified against Johnson.
On Dec. 27, 1994, more than five months after the killing, McBryde gave police her first full account of Robinson’s murder. She said she was hanging around the now-closed Mr. Z’s bar at Almeda St. and Second Ave., just down the hill from the murder scene, even though no one has been able to corroborate that. She said she agreed to meet a man named Tony Wright in a nearby second-floor apartment to drink and do drugs.
She described the second floor apartment just three doors down a hill from the murder scene as a sparsely furnished drug den. When she got there, she said she found Wright on a couch nodding in and out of consciousness from an injection of heroin. Despite her addiction, she said she walked past a pile of heroin on a table because she feared someone was setting her up. Later in court, she would not be able to identify Wright.
As she stood in the apartment, McBryde said Verna Robinson came out of the bathroom. She figured Robinson was there for drugs too, even though toxicology reports later showed no trace of drugs in the dead woman’s system. They exchanged small talk and Robinson left, McBryde said.
After Robinson left, McBryde said she looked out a window to watch her friend walk up the street. Then she said she left the apartment to pursue her.
As she exited the building, McBryde said she heard a shot. She said she ducked down into bushes in front of a house at the corner of Almeda and Sunnyside streets.
She said she peered up Sunnyside street after the first shot and saw Dorian Moorefield, Cabbagestalk and Johnson surrounding a still-standing Robinson. That’s when she said Cabbagestalk yelled: “Like your brother bitch, this is what snitches get.” A second shot was fired into Robinson’s head and she hit the ground, McBryde said.
McBryde said someone yelled, “Let’s roll!” and the trio fled down Almeda St. to a rusted orange Pontiac Trans Am driven by a man she identified as “Andre.” There would be no further mention of the getaway car or its driver.
After she watched the assailants escape, McBryde said she walked three blocks to the home of Gary Moorefield, Dorian Moorefield’s brother and a leader of the Hazelwood Mob, who is now serving a federal prison sentence.
Despite the horror of watching the gangland-style hit, she said Gary Moorefield invited her into the house to give him a massage. A drug expert later testified in street parlance, the word “massage” means the exchange of sexual favors for drugs.
Within minutes, she said several men arrived and summoned Gary Moorefield with the gang’s distress call of “Ou! -Ou! -Ou!” While she said as many as six individuals were there, she said she did not see them. She identified Johnson, Cabbagestalk and Dorian Moorefield by their voices. When Gary Moorefield told her to leave, she went next door to Gail Robinson’s house, where they hid to avoid police canvassing the area. After Johnson was convicted, Robinson, another crack addict who is not related to Verna Robinson, would tell a different story about McBryde’s actions that night.
Johnson turned himself in when he learned an arrest warrant was issued. He would never be free again. Cabbagestalk was caught after a foot chase with police in the Terrace Village housing project two days later. He tossed away a .9-millimeter handgun during the pursuit. It was not the gun that killed Verna Robinson. No gun was ever connected to the murder. Moorefield was on the lam for about a year before he turned himself in.
Johnson said police told him they knew he wasn’t the shooter. They were willing to cut him a deal if he would lay the blame on the other two.
“They told me, “These guys don’t care nothing about you, tell us what you know,” Johnson said. “I told them how am I going to tell you something I don’t know?”
Johnson knew McBryde from the streets, but he had no idea she was the star prosecution witness until a coroner’s inquest months later. His reaction: “Honestly, I started laughing. What could she possibly come in and say? I figured I’m going home.”
But after McBryde’s inquest testimony, the case was held for court.
“I was in disbelief. This lady was sitting there lying. I didn’t know nothing about any deal she got. I didn’t know why she was doing this,” he said.
As his trial date approached, Johnson, who was jailed without bond, became increasingly alarmed. The court appointed counsel’s investigator did not seem to be interviewing key witnesses or examining the crime scene. There was no detailed background investigation on McBryde.
What Johnson did not know was that the investigator did not adequately canvas the murder scene and never submitted a report on his work to DePasquale, who says he mistakenly tried to do the work himself at the last minute. He says he failed his client by not asking for a continuance until that work was accomplished. He didn’t, he said, because he did not want Johnson to be tried with his co-defendants.
“You don’t go to trial without touching all of the bases, and all of them were not touched,” he said.
Johnson said he had feelings of trepidation as his trial began and Assistant Allegheny County District Attorney Kim Berkeley–Clark told his jury: “You will learn that sometimes you have to rely on the testimony of people that have criminal records, people that have charges pending, people that are drug addicts. Some of you may not like her and we’re not asking you to like her. What we are asking you to do is believe her.”
DePasquale countered, stating: “This case should never have been brought–this is a case of innuendo.”
McBryde admitted to retail theft charges, receiving stolen property, and bad check cases in Pittsburgh, Johnstown and Virginia during three years on crack cocaine. She admitted having pending charges in which she was accused of being paid by a man to watch her preteen children perform sex acts on each other. She also admitted being charged with using her children to shoplift from a Robinson Towne Center store.
She testified that in exchange for her testimony, prosecutors dismissed some theft charges, she received drug rehabilitation and money for living expenses. She insisted she was not receiving any preferential treatment in the child prostitution charge, or the Robinson Towne Center cases. In fact, Berkeley-Clark wrote a letter to DePasquale prior to trial, saying the district attorney’s office had considered helping McBryde with those charges, but said it, “would not do so because of the nature of the allegations.”
“What, if any, promises have been made to you concerning the disposition of your cases to get you to testify? Berkeley-Clark asked McBryde in front of Johnson’s jury.
“None,” McBryde replied, while stating she hoped more consideration might be forthcoming.
She also said she was off drugs, but she had said that to judges before.
DePasquale, like other defense attorneys as these cases unfolded, thought more deals were forthcoming, arguing prosecutors were withholding evidence from him. Under criminal law regarding so-called discovery rules, a prosecutor is obligated to find and turn over any evidence that tends to be exculpatory or would shed negative light on witnesses.
Aside from that, DePasquale says he is more disappointed in his own performance than in any case he has ever tried. One reason is that he did nothing about the aura of gang intimidation that filled the courtroom in Johnson’s case. The other was a lack of crime scene investigation.
There were instances during Johnson’s case where mob members trying to protect Moorefield and Cabbagestalk not only threatened jurors as they were led into the courtroom, but intimidated witnesses with gang signs and threats. One juror was dismissed after he said the threats rendered him unable to reach a fair verdict. At one point, Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Lawrence O’Toole threatened to jail one gang member if he uttered another word to jurors or cast any nasty glances or gang signs at witnesses.
The intimidation and fear elements were manifested in the testimony of Satera Thomas. In an interview with police after the Robinson murder, she identified Moorefield at the murder scene, another man who resembled Cabbagestalk, and a black child she described as 13-14-years-old whose height, weight and complexion did not resemble Johnson. Prior to trial, DePasquale put Johnson in a line-up and Thomas could not identify him.
DePasquale said when he told her he was putting her on the witness stand to say Johnson wasn’t one of the assailants, Thomas told him that Hazelwood Mob members threatened to kill her if she testified. She told him she was not going to repeat her statements to police if he put her under oath so he did not plan to call her as a witness.
To DePasquale’s amazement, Thomas was called as a prosecution witness to show how pervasive the Hazelwood Mob climate of fear was. She showed up in court wearing a wig and sunglasses as a prosecution witness. When DePasquale questioned her about her statements in a police report in the hours after the killing, she denied ever making them.
“In that case, things were going wrong, it was just one other big piece of a bad puzzle,” DePasquale said.
Elash, who watched the trial because he was appointed to represent Johnson in the penalty phase of the case because prosecutors were seeking a death sentence, blames himself.
“I learned at the expense of someone who got life that you have to make sure to control the courtroom. I was negligent in not monitoring the aura of the courtroom–I became a better attorney over it and he spends his life in prison, that’s a travesty of justice,” he said.
The jailed Johnson was unaware of most of that, but he knew things were not going well.
“There wasn’t a time that I thought I was wrong,” Johnson said.
DePasquale did find some holes in McBryde’s testimony.
She testified Robinson was still standing between the first and second shot, a fact disputed by a forensic pathologist who said either of the shots would have caused Robinson to be instantaneously immobilized.
“Did you or did you not ever see Verna Robinson standing after you heard the first gunshot fired?” DePasquale asked after a contentious series of questions.
“‘Yes,’” replied McBryde.
He got McBryde to admit she had been convicted of several felony cases in Pittsburgh, Johnstown and in Virginia. But DePasquale did not know that McBryde had used as many as 11 different names and six different Social Security numbers during a life of crime the Johnson jury never heard about.
Because a private investigator did not adequately canvas the area and the jury was not taken to the scene, DePasquale allowed the jury to rely on photographs taken by the prosecution team that showed a distorted view of the murder scene. He also had no information to attack McBryde’s version of what she did in the moments before she saw the murder or on her actual sight lines of the killing. When that information surfaced, it would change the course of the Cabbagestalk and Moorefield trials.
While DePasquale told Johnson’s jury that he was going to present an alibi defense for Johnson, he did not call Ruth Roach or her companion, Stanley West, who signed affidavits stating Johnson was in their home six blocks away when the murder happened. Early in the night, they said he helped them baby sit six young children. Then they said he went to third story bedroom and didn’t leave until the next morning.
DePasquale decided in a case resting on testimony of a long-time criminal and drug addict, that the two alibi witnesses, who also were in fear for their lives, would not be credible, so he did not put them on the stand.
He did not call West because he has a criminal record. He says he decided not to use Roach because she was eight-and-a-half months pregnant and scared from death threats from the Hazelwood Mob and from police. DePasquale said Roach told him police visited her just before the trial, intimating they would charge her with perjury if she didn’t watch what she said about Johnson.
In her subsequent affidavit, Ruth Roach would say: “I feel that because I didn’t get the chance to take the stand, the jury never received the chance to hear the fact that Terrell couldn’t have been in two places at once.”
Johnson saw Roach at the trial.
“In my mind, once you put Ruth Roach on the stand, it was over. At the point he said he wasn’t putting her on the stand, I said, “what do you mean?’” said Johnson, who did not testify on his own behalf.
DePasquale also decided not to present testimony from Fred Rideout, another substance abuser, who also later signed an affidavit stating he was with Robinson when she charged Johnson with simple assault, which prosecutors used to build a motive behind Johnson’s role in the killing. In his affidavit, Rideout corroborated Johnson’s claim that Robinson fell down city steps trying to flee. Because Rideout was also a drug abuser, DePasquale did not consider Rideout a believable witness either.
“I was thinking: ‘I’m going to jail,’” Johnson recalls.
It only took the jury a few hours to convict Johnson.
He described his feelings as “numb” as he waited for the same jury to determine whether he would spend the rest of his life in prison or condemned to death. A legal argument before the penalty phase of the trial began led to the imposition of a sentence of life without parole.
Cabbagestalk’s trial began shortly thereafter. Elash represented him.
After McBryde told virtually the same story as she did in Johnson’s case, Elash attacked her credibility by pointing out something Johnson’s trial counsel did not know. McBryde not only had been convicted of several drug-related crimes under her real name, but that she also had a criminal history under several other names, birth dates and Social Security numbers that dwarfed what Johnson’s jury heard.
“Mrs. McBryde, who is Evelyn Crenshaw?” Elash asked.
“Me,” responded McBryde.
“Who is Denise Webster?”
“Who is Dolly Pearson?”
“Me,” she said, as he walked her through eleven names she has used in various crimes.
After McBryde repeated her story about the apartment she visited before the killing, Elash put the apartment’s occupant on the stand.
Dinah Brown, a nurse’s aide studying to become a licensed practical nurse, showed pictures of her well-appointed apartment that contradicted McBryde’s descriptions. She showed how potted plants in her front window would have prevented McBryde from looking out of it for Robinson. She contested McBryde’s version of the dwelling’s layout. She also said that McBryde, who she’d known most of her life, was never in her apartment. At the time of the killing, she said she was with her boyfriend in bed. She knew she was there that night because both of them were awakened by the commotion after Robinson’s murder.
In a subsequent interview, Brown said she was not aware that her apartment was part of the murder case until she was subpoenaed for Cabbagestalk’s trial. She said no one from Johnson’s defense team visited her.
“It is ludicrous that Terrell Johnson is in jail on Evelyn McBryde’s word,” Brown said later.
Elash also showed the Cabbagestalk jury that McBryde changed her point of view of the murder. In her first statement, McBryde said she hid in bushes along Almeda street This time, she said she secreted herself in bushes at the side of the house. Elash contended she moved her point of view because her first position was obstructed.
Then he asked her how she got behind a locked gate to secret herself in the second spot.
When McBryde did not give Elash a clear answer, Clark, the prosecutor, cleared it up: “How did you get behind the gate?”
“The gate wasn’t there. Or if it was there, it wasn’t closed,” McBryde responded.
Elash then presented testimony from the owner of the house who said the gate had been locked since he lost a key to the lock a decade earlier.
While she had identified Moorefield and someone who looked like Cabbagestalk to police at the scene shortly after the murder, Satera Thomas did not reappear.
The result: Cabbagestalk was acquitted of the murder. In an apparent brokered verdict, he was convicted of conspiracy and sentenced to a 5-10-year prison term.
“In my 29 years as a lawyer, Dolly McBryde was if not the most incredible witness I ever heard, she is in the pantheon of incredible witnesses,” Elash said.
DePasquale said that while the Hazelwood Mob held an iron-clad rule over the neighborhood, McBryde said Dorian Moorefield had repeated telephone conversations with McBryde prior to when he turned himself in to face trial a year after the charges were filed.
That never came up in his trial, but his attorney continued to pound away at all of the previous issues and argued that McBryde intimated in her testimony that she was given promises of more deals from the government that were not disclosed.
That happened as Attorney William Difendorfer questioned McBryde about the charges of prostituting her children and using them to steal from department stores in Robinson Town Center that caused child welfare officials to take them from her. While McBryde testified she was not expecting any further deals from prosecutors, she steadfastly maintained in front of a jury that her children would soon be returned to her.
That caused Difendorfer, like Elash and DePasquale before him, to question whether prosecutors were withholding information about hidden deals.
Difendorfer also questioned McBryde about why she wasn’t charged with crimes after being caught shoplifting $7.10 in false fingernails, nail polish and remover from an Eckerd Drug Store in Oakland while she was in the custody of a city police detective.
McBryde also admitted she had severe, life-long eyesight problems. On the night of the murder, she said she was only wearing one contact lens.
As for her story of giving Gary Moorefield a massage shortly after the murder, Moorefield produced airline ticket receipts showing he was in Atlanta. In a subsequent letter from prison, he confirmed that.
Moorefield was acquitted in two hours.
“Sick,” is the word that Johnson said described his feelings on learning about acquittals of Moorefield and Cabbagestalk.
“You’re happy that individuals didn’t have to go to jail, but at the same time, they were telling me I’m here (in prison) forever for something I didn’t do,” he said.
In the aftermath of the two acquittals, Judge Lawrence O’Toole, who presided over all three cases, granted Johnson a new trial after DePasquale admitted at a post-trial hearing that he was ineffective over the failure of the investigator to properly investigate the crime scene and for not putting Johnson’s alibi witnesses on the stand.
While he admitted his short-comings, DePasquale testified: “I am as sure that Evelyn McBryde was not present at the homicide scene and did not witness that homicide as I am of anything.”
In a recent interview, DePasquale went further: “This is the first case I’ve ever had where I thought he did deserve a new trial based on my ineffectiveness.”
The same investigation I should have done was what the police should have done if the investigation was done in good faith. Instead, they started with a conclusion and investigated it until they had a case.
“In my mind, that’s a discovery abuse in and of itself. The reason they didn’t want to investigate this fully is that they had enough evidence to build a case. They weren’t going to investigate this to find out it was a total fraud,” he said.
“I don’t believe the police or prosecutors believe she (McBryde) was anywhere near the scene that night,” he added.
Elash says the presiding judge realized that as the cases progressed.
“Judge O’Toole had the advantage of literally seeing the scene and seeing all the additional evidence in the other cases. He gave Terrell Johnson a chance to have a fair trial, which is what any fair-minded jurist should do,” said Elash.
Prosecutors appealed O’Toole’s reversal to the state Superior Court. In a 2-1 vote, a panel of judges reversed O’Toole’s new trial order. Despite DePasquale’s admissions, they did not believe his performance merited a new trial.
In a dissent, Superior Court Judge John Musmanno said: “I rely upon the logical and well-reasoned opinion of Judge Lawrence O’Toole–that counsel’s failure to call five witnesses identified by the appellant had no reasonable basis, and thus, that appellant’s trial counsel was ineffective. I also note that trial counsel himself agreed, during the (Post Conviction Relief Act) hearing, that he was ineffective in failing to call at least one of the witnesses.”
“The Superior Court obviously had no knowledge of the record,” Elash said.
“I was shocked. I never thought Judge O’Toole would be reversed on that,” DePasquale said.
The state Supreme Court also denied his appeal.
Earlier this year, his habeas corpus petition in the U.S. District Court of Western Pennsylvania was denied. He has filed an appeal of that ruling with The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. If that fails, his only recourse will be to petition the U.S. Supreme Court for relief. Because of his appeal, the Allegheny County District Attorney’s office refused to discuss the matter.
During her testimony, McBryde repeatedly stated she had kicked drugs and turned her life around. She said police had relocated her and she was trying to piece her life back together.
She has had some help that goes beyond what Johnson’s jury heard.
During the trials, Berkeley–Clark, now an Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge serving in the Family Division, told defense lawyers once McBryde’s testimony was completed there would be no further deals.
Not only were the charges that she prostituted her children dropped, but also McBryde has enjoyed other largesse from prosecutors.
“I knew that any charges out there against Dolly McBryde were going to go away,” DePasquale said.
Since, McBryde has been charged with nine additional crimes in Allegheny County.
Most of them — including being charged with stealing her father’s Social Security check on a Christmas Day as well as various check thefts and other frauds — are drug-related. At one point, McBryde, who has moved frequently and claimed in some court documents she was in a witness protection program, had nine outstanding arrest warrants against her in Allegheny County because she failed to appear at court hearings after arrests.
In the paperwork associated with these cases, the Allegheny County District Attorney’s office left blank various questions on forms that provide sentencing judges with information on previous criminal history.
Under state sentencing guidelines, judges are obliged to calculate previous criminal history, as well as violations of probationary sentences, to increase penalties. If her criminal history was properly documented, under law many of the crimes she was facing would have been graded as felonies. With a long list of violated probationary sentences, she could have been incarcerated for as long as 50 years.
Instead, McBryde was given credit for the time she served between being picked up for failing to appear in court and awaiting trial. By the time a series of judges — including O’Toole–plodded through the new charges, many of them were dismissed and she received a series of probationary sentences to go along with those she previously accepted (and violated) during her career in crime that now numbers more than 50 cases.
After a long search, McBryde was found and asked about her testimony and the information that had not been brought out about deals in her own cases.
She initially did not admit who she was, but eventually relented. She showed no remorse for her testimony other than offering a few vague words about Johnson.
“He’s not the one I wanted,” she said.
“If he’d had the money or the power like the other two, he’d have gotten off, too. He didn’t know what he was getting into, he just got caught up in some bad shit,” she said.
Despite her long criminal history, she said she works part-time as a “certified special police officer.”
During the brief interview, she agreed to talk specifically about the cases later. When contacted, she proclaimed her “time is money,” suggesting a reporter pay her for an interview.
When that offer was refused, she claimed this story was going to cause harm to come to her, despite the fact that she has been seen in clubs and shopping places frequented by folks from Hazelwood over the past two years.
During a final telephone conversation in which she refused to be interviewed, she again claimed various criminals are still looking for her: “I’m strapped and ready,” she said.
She did not respond to a specific list of written questions mailed to her. Among the questions she did not answer were queries about Gail Robinson, another substance abuser who says she at McBryde’s side the entire day of the murder.
During an interview, Gail Robinson, who is not related to Verna, said she and McBryde were together in her home providing prostitution services the entire night of the murder.
She said McBryde never left her house.
Johnson spends his days working in a sewing shop at SCI-Greene and working on his last-ditch appeals.
The way he looks at it is that he was tied into a murder case over a simple assault that never happened. He says he embraced Christianity in the county jail while he was awaiting trial.
“I’m not a perfect citizen; I was who I was, but look at Evelyn McBryde. This lady took a deal to save her own life…I just want my life back…another chance at life,” he said.
Bill Moushey can be reached at bmoushey [at] pointpark [dot] edu or 412-765-3164. A condensed version of this story was published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and can be read here.
by Paige Krivda
After 18 years of incarceration, Terrell Johnson was acquitted of murder.
Following four days of witness testimony and two days of jury deliberation at his retrial, Terrell Johnson was acquitted of all
charges when the jury disregarded the testimony of discredited eyewitnesses.
Defense Attorney, Turahn Jenkins, discredited key witness, Evelyn “Dolly” McBryde’s testimony that placed Johnson at the scene in 1994. At the time of her testimony in 1994, McBryde was facing multiple charges for theft and prostituting her children. Between 1994-1997 McBryde was provided $10,000 for drug rehabilitation and hotels as well as $1,000 for apartment rent. However, prosecuting attorney, Russell Broman, stipulated that “Ms. McBryde has not been given money for testimony”.
Jurors were taken to the street in Hazelwood to see that bushes and the gate McBryde testified to hiding in as the murder took place. McBryde’s testimony was torn to shreds when she was unable to identify exactly which bushes she was hiding in.
The owner of the gate Mcbryde insisted she went through on the night of the murder testified on Monday that it was impossible since the gate has been locked for thirty years and she had dogs at the time.
In his closing arguments Jenkins focused on McBryde, “This is the person they want you to believe? Come on! She is a documented liar” while holding up 18 pages of McBryde’s criminal history.
Victim’s mother changes testimony
The only other witness that placed Johnson at the scene was the victim’s mother, Barbara Robinson. She came forward last week claiming to identify Terrell Johnson, Harold Cabbagestock, and Dorian Moorefield as the men who walked past her house three times before her daughter was murdered. In 1994 she testified repeatedly “I didn’t see no faces…I did not recognize them…we were talking, and I didn’t pay them no attention”.
When approached with her previous statements Barbara Robinson claimed “that’s what it says in those transcripts, but I didn’t say that…You can only say so much. Now I’m telling it like it is”
“I think that she’s a hurt mom and she wants justice and she doesn’t care if it’s the right one or not,” said Johnson’s wife Saundra Colemackamey.
“I think she should focus on the people who were supposed to help her- who were supposed to protect her daughter but didn’t- like the police,” Colemackamey concluded.
Jenkins stated his sympathy for Barbara Robinson in his closing statement, “No one should ever have to bury their children…but she doesn’t know who those guys were. She didn’t know then, and she doesn’t know now”.
Johnson released into arms of his family
Crowds of family, friends, and reporters greeted Terrell Johnson when he was released yesterday evening from the Allegheny County Jail.
Johnson turned down a plea deal that would have sent him free two years ago in exchange for his confession to the murder of Verna Robinson, “Because I didn’t do it. I ain’t got no regrets”.
Johnson pointed to members of the Point Park Innocence Institute, “That’s my family right there. They never gave up. I appreciate it all. They did everything that I needed them to”.
Johnson hugged all of his family who has been fighting for his innocence since his wrongful conviction in 1994 including his wife Saundra and his granddaughter.
“All these people came together because of it,” said Johnson.
Defense Attorney Turahn Jenkins hugged Johnson’s family, as they thanked him for his hard work on Johnson’s case.
“It’s over. He waited a long time for this- too long,” said Jenkins.
Johnson is excited to see old friends again, “My first stop is Hazelwood. Back Home”.
Terrell Johnson ”Was the Wrong Man Convicted in a 1994 Murder case?”
Terrell Johnson ”Family members petition for release of inmate”
Terrell Johnson ”Tainted snitch says she won’t testify in retrial”
Terrell Johnson ”Superior court affirms ruling in Johnson Case”
Terrell Johnson ”Johnson Wins New Trial”
Terrell Johnson ”Johnson May receive new trial”
Terrell Johnson ”The truth may set Terrell Johnson Free”
“Was the wrong man convicted in 1994 murder case?” by William Moushey