Jun. 11—WILKES-BARRE — Jury deliberation in the trial against Gene Hawkins has grown dramatic, with 11 of the jurors accusing one of claiming that she made up her mind during jury selection.
Hawkins, 51, has been on trial this week for the fatal stabbing of Lashaun Overton, 34. Overton was killed in September 2015 outside the Hazleton apartment building both he and Hawkins lived in.
Jurors deliberated for roughly four hours when a note was given to Judge Tina Polachek Gartley by the jury foreman, who wrote that this juror said that she had made up her mind last Friday during jury selection. The juror was brought into the courtroom, and the juror claimed that she did not explicitly say that she made up her mind, saying that she couldn't remember exactly what she said, saying that she was "so upset."
But one by one, all the other jurors were brought in to be questioned, and they all confirmed that she had said she formed a "gut-feeling" on Friday that Hawkins was not guilty, and that she would be sticking to that regardless of the evidence.
Prosecutors asked that the juror be replaced with one of the alternate jurors, while the defense team asked that the court continue to ask her when she formulated her belief, and possibly be allowed to be on the jury. Gartley, though, pointing to the 11 sworn statements that she had said she made up her mind last Friday, removed the juror from the jury, saying she had violated her oath as a juror.
Closing arguments began with defense attorney Edward Olexa, who said that there was simply too much reasonable doubt to be found in the case to convict his client.
According to Olexa, the doubt in the case comes from a series of sources: unbelievable eyewitnesses, shoddy police work that led to crucial evidence either being destroyed or never being found in the first place, and that a coherent motive for Hawkins to stab Overton was never described.
During the course of the trial, prosecutors presented a series of eyewitnesses — Lee Cain, Rasun Tyler and Seth Hughes. And while it must be noted that the witnesses all testified on the stand that it was Hawkins who stabbed Overton, during the course of an argument, with Hawkins leaving and returning with a large knife, Olexa focused on the ways in which their testimonies diverged.
Olexa said that these divergences — including differing numbers of people on the scene and that some of their statements, especially Cain's, have shifted over the years since the incident — point to these witnesses being unbelievable. And, Olexa argued, the jurors would be well within their rights to totally discount testimony from individuals who were found to not be credible in certain areas.
Olexa pointed out that both Hughes and Tyler left the scene, leaving Overton to die in the front yard.
"Flight is something that can raise suspicion about credibility," he said. "Why did they flee? That's the question."
Olexa pointed out additionally that Hughes got rid of the clothes he was wearing that night after the incident and that the police never found it. Additionally, officers never found the knife Hawkins allegedly used, nor the gun that Overton apparently used to fire a series of shots after he was stabbed.
He also pointed to an apparent typographical error on the log sheet of evidence, suggesting that the shirt Hawkins was wearing was taken as evidence on Sept. 5 while detectives said it was actually on Sept. 4. Olexa suggested it's possible that it was no typo at all, but rather that the T-shirt sat out unguarded for a full day at the police station, leading to possible DNA contamination.
The attorney also focused on testimony from detectives who said other potential witnesses were "uncooperative," precluding them from testifying. Olexa suggested detectives didn't push hard enough.
"Police were more than happy to just move on," Olexa said. "They already had their guy."
Olexa additionally suggested that it was possible that there was a conspiracy from the witnesses against Hawkins. He asked jurors to find his client not guilty.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Chester F. Dudick Jr., during his closing arguments refuted all of Olexa's claims, stopping short of calling them ridiculous.
Dudick acknowledged that there are discrepancies between the eyewitnesses' testimony, but he said this is to be expected in the wake of a chaotic scene, especially since all were positioned in different places.
Dudick said that there was neither an opportunity nor a logical reason for the eyewitnesses to have conspired against Hawkins. Cain, he said, was picked up by police shortly after the murder and he pointed to Hawkins as the killer that night. Tyler came to the police station the next day and also said it was Hawkins.
"What do they have to gain by testifying falsely in this case?" Dudick asked. "There's nothing here."
Dudick also suggested that Olexa used a tired, frequently used defense.
"That's the catch-all: 'The police didn't do their job; someone else must have killed him,'" he said.
Dudick said that there was no mistake: "They charged the right man in this case, and the right man is sitting right there, and his name is Gene Hawkins."
Dudick asked jurors to return a verdict of guilty of first degree murder.
Jurors entered into their deliberation just before 12:30 p.m. on Friday. This story will be updated.