After a four-day trial and four hours of jury deliberation last week, two Knoxville teens were found guilty of first-degree murder in the 2021 shooting death of Stanley Freeman Jr. as he drove away from Austin-East Magnet High School.
Rashan Jordan, 16, and Deondre Davis, 18, were found guilty of first-degree murder in the fatal shooting the 16-year-old in what prosecutors argued was a case of mistaken identity.
Jordan and Davis were 14 and 16, respectively, on Feb. 12, 2021, Freeman was killed as he was on his way to his job at McDonald's. He would have graduated last year.
Attorneys for the two teens argued the evidence didn't directly tie them to the crime and that eyewitness accounts were contradictory.
But in the end, the jury late on March 31 found each defendant guilty of first-degree murder, felony murder and aggravated child abuse. The jury consisted of five men and seven women, one of whom is Black.
The teens also were found guilty of lesser charges of felony murder and aggravated child abuse.
Sentencing for both teens will be held May 18.
Freeman's family and friends gathered in the front three rows of benches waiting for the jury to enter the room after their deliberations.
The group remained silent as the verdicts were read by the jury's spokesman.
Outside the room, hugs were quietly shared as tears were shed. Friends and family embraced one another, as well as the district attorneys, then quietly left the courthouse.
Prosecutors relied heavily on DNA and cell phone evidence linking a rental car and several guns to the shooting. Just one witness placed the defendants at the site of the shooting, but he was killed in December 2022.
The 16-year-old had testified as a hostile witness during a juvenile proceeding, and a recording of that testimony was played during this week's trial.
The boy testified he was friends with Freeman, saying, "He was cool." He also knew the two defendants, he said, adding he had no issues with any of them. He said he was walking home from school that afternoon when he saw the two defendants in a Nissan.
"I said, 'What’s up,' and kept going," the teen said, adding that he continued walking home before hearing gunshots a few minutes later and running from the area. He said he did not speak to Freeman but testified Freeman's Honda was a little behind the Nissan.
The teen said after he heard the shots, he called the younger defendant to "check on them," but the defendant answered the phone only to say he would call back later.
Under cross-examination, the witness said he did not see a gun in the defendants' car and he did not witness the shooting.
Closing arguments lasted just over an hour before the jury was sent to begin its deliberations in the late afternoon of March 31.
Knox County prosecutors argued the jury should look at the evidence surrounding the shooting, and that the events leading up to and after the murder prove their case. They pointed to video footage, the teens posing for photos with the weapons and DNA evidence linking them to the Nissan.
“If you follow all of the circumstantial evidence, that points you in only one direction," said Knox County Assistant District Attorney General Larry Dillon. "And that direction is these two are guilty of all of these charges."
Defense attorneys' closing arguments relied heavily on what they argued was a lack of evidence to prove without a reasonable doubt the teens were in the car or had the guns the day of the crime. Attorneys told the jury that prosecutors weren't able to meet their burden of proof.
“The state keeps telling you this is a circumstantial case," said defense attorney Ashlee Mathis. "But that's not evidence of what happened on February 12."
How the sentencing will happen
The suspects were tried as adults even though they were minors at the time of the shooting. The decision to try them as adults could mean decades of prison time. Neither will face the death penalty.
The two teens, as well as a third who is now 18, also are facing attempted murder charges in a shooting that targeted Johnkelian "John John" Mathis on Jan. 14, 2021. Mathis was uninjured in that incident but was killed in a shooting in early August 2021.
All three teens will be tried for the attempted murder of Mathis, with that trial set to start on Aug. 28.
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This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Teens found guilty of murder in Stanley Freeman Jr. shooting