WILKES-BARRE — It was up to a jury to decide if Keith Williams was justified in shooting and killing Brock Earnest, or if Williams is a murderer.
After nearly seven hours of deliberation, they made their choice Friday night: guilty of voluntary manslaughter.
No one besides members of the media and courthouse staff were there to hear the verdict; no one from either Williams’ or Earnest’s families was there.
Williams, 42, was accused of shooting Earnest, 40, while Earnest was a guest in Williams’ Fairmount Township home. Williams’ attorney, Demetrius Fannick, argued Williams was justified in his killing of Earnest due to unprovoked violence on the part of the dead man. Prosecutors, meanwhile, painted a picture of Williams deciding to kill Earnest in cold blood, seeking a conviction of first degree murder.
However, Williams was ultimately found guilty of a much lesser charge, not carrying the mandatory life sentence that comes along with a first degree murder conviction. Fannick told reporters after the verdict that his client is likely to face a minimum of four-and-a-half to six years in prison.
Sentencing is set for Nov. 6.
‘A lot of gaps’
The verdict came late in the evening, many hours after a morning filled with dramatic closing arguments made by attorneys on both sides.
“There’s a lot of holes and there’s a lot of gaps,” Fannick said about prosecutor’s case.
One of the most glaring gaps according to Fannick came down to just where Earnest was in relation to Williams when he was shot.
The shooting of Earnest came about after the two men got into a seemingly unprovoked physical fight started by Earnest. Diedre Depiero, Williams’ then live-in girlfriend, separated the two men, and testified that Earnest was seated on the couch when Williams went to his bedroom and returned with a shotgun and shot Earnest in the chest.
But Fannick said this version of events simply doesn’t make sense. Based on testimony from forensic pathologist Dr. Gary Ross, Earnest’s wound would have been made by a gun pointing directly at his front. Depiero’s testimony, based on the layout of the room, would have placed Earnest with his side closer to Williams.
“The only way it could possibly happen when Keith Williams was coming down that hallway was if Brock Earnest was not sitting, but standing, facing (him),” Fannick said.
Fannick also pointed out the story Earnest used to get into the house was suspect at best. Earnest told Depiero, whom he met during an overlapping stay at the same psychiatric hospital, that he was dying of mouth cancer and needed to hang out with someone. Fannick reminded jurors that Ross found no evidence of mouth cancer.
“What a story to get into that house,” Fannick said. The attorney continued, saying that he didn’t know what Earnest’s motive was in coming to the house.
“Why? I don’t know why. I have a whole bunch of ideas, but you decide,” he said. “But I don’t think any of those ideas were gonna end up good for Keith.”
Ultimately, Fannick said Williams had no choice but to do exactly what he did.
“Mr Williams was assaulted in his own house, in his home, by a guy who was bigger, stronger, faster, who lied to get there,” Fannick said, with passion rising in his voice.
A powerful silence
Assistant District Attorney Michelle Hardik, though, says it’s not Earnest who was the liar. For her, it’s Williams.
Hardik repeatedly said that, in the past year and a half, Williams had enough time to mold his story to fit the facts to cover for a “deliberate intent to kill.”
“A man who actually believes that his life is in danger, a man who is actually in fear for his own life doesn’t need to tell a story,” she said. “He only needs to tell the truth.”
Hardik pointed out to what she said were inconsistencies in Williams’ story — notably how he left out both the fact that he and Earnest were firing off the shotgun in the home’s yard before the fight and that Earnest allegedly stood up from the couch in his initial interview with police.
According to Hardik, Williams’ description of Earnest standing up was crafted to fit exactly what Ross testified to.
Hardik said that, if Williams were truly as threatened by Earnest as he claimed on the stand, he had enough time to call the police or to tell Earnest to leave, instead of retrieving the shotgun and killing Earnest.
To show how much time Williams took, Hardik picked up the shotgun — the very one used to kill Earnest — and turned away from the bar and walked roughly the distance between Williams’ living room and his bedroom where the shotgun was.
Standing among the courtroom’s gallery, Hardik stood still as a statue, eyes locked on the ground, shotgun in hand. Silently, she counted out the seconds.
After 90 seconds — the time it allegedly took Williams to retrieve the weapon — she suddenly racked the shotgun. The sound exploded in the courtroom. She then marched back to her place at the front of the courtroom.
“Those 90 seconds, ladies and gentlemen,” Hardik said, “that was enough time to … form the deliberate intent to kill.”
‘Respect the verdict’
The jury’s evening conviction of voluntary manslaughter was unusual in that it left both sides slightly disappointed.
Attorneys explained that, to be find Williams guilty of voluntary manslaughter, they had to decide either that he acted purely on emotion in the heat of the moment, or that he had a genuine belief that his life was in danger but that this belief was incorrect.
The jury’s verdict did not explain which of these two paths the jury took.
Fannick said he was hoping for a full acquittal, while Hardik wanted either a first or third degree murder conviction.
“We’re certainly disappointed,” Fannick said. “We thought Mr. Williams acted with justification or self-defense, but certainly the jury took a long time deliberating it… and felt they reached the correct verdict.
“We certainly respect the verdict,” he went on.
Fannick said there is no immediate plan to appeal, but added that he would be meeting with Williams either over the weekend or next week to determine what’s next.
Hardik’s comments were similar to those of Fannick’s.
“This was a very difficult case to try. But we believed we had enough evidence to take it to trial,” she said.
“We recognized it wasn’t an easy case and we weren’t afraid to try it, but we respect the jury’s decision,” she added.
Whether or not Williams respects the verdict, though, is unknown. He said nothing to a Times Leader reporter while being escorted out of the building.
Reach Patrick Kernan at 570-991-6386 or on Twitter @PatKernan