Jury convicts teen of New Kensington man's murder; two others found not guilty

Dec. 8—A teenager was convicted Friday of first-degree murder in the death of a New Kensington man while his two co-defendants were acquitted of second-degree murder for their alleged roles in the killing.

After more than three hours of deliberations, 16-year-old Amir Kennedy was found guilty of the intentional killing of Jason Raiford, 39, who was gunned down July 3, 2022, as he attempted to flee from a melee in the lobby of the Valley Royal Court Apartments in New Kensington.

The same Westmoreland County jury found Elijah Gary, 20, of New Kensington, the man prosecutors claimed initiated the deadly encounter, and 17-year-old DaMontae Brooks not guilty of second-degree murder, which is the killing of a person during the commission of a violent felony. Gary was convicted of two counts of robbery and single offenses of conspiracy and aggravated assault of Raiford. Brooks was convicted of counts of robbery and conspiracy.

Kennedy was also found guilty of second-degree murder, aggravated assault, conspiracy, receiving stolen property, illegal possession of a gun, two counts of robbery and second-degree murder.

"It's just not fair for Amir," said Gary's mother, Tayonna Claybourne. "It's just that this whole thing is not fair, even for Jason Raiford."

As an adult, Gary faced a mandatory life prison term if he had been convicted of second-degree murder.

Kennedy was 14 and Brooks was 15 when Raiford was killed. Both were prosecuted as adults.

Kennedy, because he was a juvenile at the time of his arrest, is not subject to a mandatory life prison term. He could receive a sentence of at least 25 years in prison as a result of his conviction, according to defense attorney Ken Noga.

Westmoreland County Common Pleas Judge Christopher Feliciani said Kennedy, Brooks and Gary will be sentenced in about three months.

Noga declined to comment about the jury's decision.

Brooks' defense attorney, Andrew Snyder, described the verdict as emotional.

"This case brought them more together than they already were. He feels for Amir and appreciates that Amir saved him from being convicted," Snyder said.

Emily Smarto, Gary's defense lawyer, said she was pleased with the verdict.

"They didn't believe the killing was in furtherance of a felony," Smarto said.

During the four-day trial, prosecutors argued Kennedy, Brooks and Gary were part of a conspiracy of seven teens and adults who attempted to rob Raiford and used security video from the murder scene as key evidence. That footage showed a fight between the group of armed men and teens and later Kennedy firing multiple rounds at Raiford from what witnesses said was a stolen semi-automatic rifle.

Prosecutors contended Gary initiated a robbery over a $100 drug debt.

Kennedy was the lone defendant to testify during the trial. He told jurors there was no robbery plot and that he feared for his own safety when he shot and killed Raiford.

Assistant District Attorney Jackie Knupp argued that all seven men and teens who were charged in connection with Raiford's death participated in a robbery.

"This is a straight-up robbery," Knupp said in her closing argument. "They came in great numbers. They know what this is and what their roles are."

The prosecution contended most group members were armed when the surrounded Raiford in the building's lobby. Gary hit Raiford over the head with a gun, which fell to the ground and led to a scramble for the weapon, witnesses testified. Raiford retrieved the gun and went outside, where he was met by Kennedy, who stood about 20 feet away and fired, witnesses said.

Kennedy fired 14 rounds, according to investigators. Raiford was hit with 11 shots, including several that struck him as he lay facedown on the ground. Prosecutors said 10 shots hit Raiford from behind.

Raquan Carpenter, 20, of Pittsburgh testified Raiford was a known local drug user with a reputation for stealing and described him as a man to be feared. Carpenter remains in jail awaiting trial on charges of second-degree murder, robbery, conspiracy and other offenses in connection with Raiford's death.

Noga argued Kennedy was justified using deadly force against Raiford. Kennedy contended Raiford threatened his life about two weeks earlier and, following the melee, he feared for his life as Raiford ran from the apartment building with a gun in hand.

"There is no other explanation. He was scared," Noga argued. "In his mind, he kept pulling the trigger until he thought he was safe."

Noga said Kennedy was too young and inexperienced to understand his situation.

Knupp argued that self-defense did not apply. Kennedy was among the first to flee the building and could have continued to run to safety without firing a shot, she said.

"Amir Kennedy violated his right to retreat. He must keep running once he is out the door," Knupp told jurors.

Lawyers for Gary and Brooks argued prosecutors were unable to prove there was a conspiracy to commit a robbery, a necessary element to find their clients guilty of second-degree murder.

Smarto said Gary was a victim of a rush to judgement by prosecutors and argued the security videos, which contained no audio, were insufficient to lead to a conviction.

"They are asking you to look at those videos and guess (what happened)," Smarto said.

Snyder argued Brooks had no knowledge of a robbery plot and fled up a stairway before the fatal shots were fired.

"When any gunshots were fired, DaMontae was no where to be found," Snyder argued.

In addition to Carpenter, three others — Avian Molter, 16, of Pittsburgh; Jonathan Felder, 19, of Arnold; and Braedon Dickinson, 16 — face pending charges of second-degree murder, robbery and conspiracy.

Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich by email at rcholodofsky@triblive.com or via Twitter .