Racial tensions detailed in Pittston homicide trial

By Patrick Kernan - [email protected]
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WILKES-BARRE — In the trial of Stephen Spencer, attorneys aren’t going to be arguing over if he did it.

Instead, the question will be, “was he justified in doing it?”

“Stephen killed Christopher,” Spencer’s attorney, John Pike, said at the beginning of his opening statements. “There’s the admission. If that was it, we wouldn’t be here today.”

Pike was referring to Christopher Williams, the 32-year-old who died following an altercation with Spencer, 31, outside Saints & Sinners Irish Pub in Pittston. Williams was killed in the early morning hours of July 9, 2017.

According to Pike, Spencer was a family man, an entrepreneur who was self-employed and legally carried a gun to protect himself.

Pike’s picture of Spencer was at odds with that of a cold-blooded killer, he suggested.

“Someone who had never been convicted of a crime was now in jail, pending a trial on homicide,” Pike said. “Why would he come out of nowhere and kill someone?”

Spencer, through Pike, has previously made an argument of self-defense, saying the shooting came after a racially motivated altercation between Spencer and Williams’ cousin, Marty Williams.

Assistant District Attorney Brittany Quinn acknowledged in her opening statements there was a racial element to the altercation.

The disagreement between Spencer and Marty began after Marty refused to shake Spencer’s hand because he was black. Mike Owens, a friend of the Williamses, referred to Spencer as the n-word, she said.

“As much as the defense wants to make this case about race, it’s not about race,” she said. “Marty and Mike are not on trial here.”

The Williamses left the bar, with Spencer and his friend Henry Gift leaving shortly after. Both sides agree that within a few more minutes, Williams was dead. Quinn admitted to jurors there was no video evidence, but suggested evidence would show the shooting was unprovoked.

Shifting stories

The bulk of the day’s testimony centered around two witnesses: Alaena Swingle, who made the call to 911, and Marty Williams. Pike and his co-counsel, Mary Deady, both pointed out aspects of their testimony that were brought up for the first time Tuesday.

On the stand, Swingle described being at the bar with the Williams men, saying that she was aware of a disagreement between Marty and Spencer, with Gift coming over to confront Marty about not shaking Spencer’s hand.

She said Owens used the n-word, but did not seem to be referring to anyone in particular.

Toward the end of the night, she described the Williams men leaving the bar, with her following close behind. By the time she turned the corner, she said she saw Chris fall to the ground after he had been shot.

According to her, Spencer said, “Let him die,” while pointing the gun at Chris’ friends.

On cross-examination, though, Deady pointed out the dramatic phrase never came up in any of her previous testimony.

Swingle chalked this up to being in an emotional state.

“I had to wash the blood, Chris’ blood, off my hands at the police station,” she said. “I was (shaken) up from what happened.”

‘Race-mixing’

After lunch, Marty Williams took the stand. When questioned by Assistant District Attorney Thomas Hogans if he refused to shake Spencer’s hand due to his race, Marty replied, “You could say that.”

He described Spencer coming over to the bar, standing behind Owens and Swingle — which Swingle also described — before Owens told him to “get the f— on (his) side of the bar.”

Marty said Gift approached him a few more times throughout the night, confronting him about his refusal to shake Spencer’s hand. The final time, he said Gift told him, “Then you deserve what’s coming to you.”

Pike balked at this during cross-examination, as it was also a statement that had never came up before. Pike grilled him about Marty’s self-described belief that “race-mixing” is wrong, asking him his opinion about various minority groups to ascertain if he had a problem with them.

“Black people, Hispanic people, Asian people; people you can readily identify that are different from you,” Pike said.

“That’s correct,” Marty said.

Pike brought up Facebook posts of Marty’s, including one that was made shortly before Chris’ death. The post in question used the n-word, and suggested the “boys” at the bar told the individual referred to in the post to “kick rocks or,” but didn’t provide an answer for the implied “or else.”

Pike suggested this post was a “call-to-arms,” trying to rally his friends to get Spencer out of the bar. Marty said the post was a joke, and was actually referring to a white man who was also at the bar.

On direct examination from Hogans, Marty said Spencer jumped off the steps leading up to the bar and shot Spencer unprovoked.

“You’re saying he just, no reason, started shooting,” Pike said on cross-examination.

“Yeah,” Marty said.

In the afternoon, one of the jurors was dismissed, after he alerted counsel that he recognized Marty from frequenting a local American Legion.

He was replaced with one of the alternate jurors, which shifted the jury make-up to eight women and four men. Two of the jurors are black, while the rest are white.

Spencer’s trial continues Wednesday before Luzerne County President Judge Richard M. Hughes III.

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https://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/web1_web1_TTL071917Spencer-3-2.jpgSpencer

By Patrick Kernan

[email protected]

Reach Patrick Kernan at 570-991-6386 or on Twitter @PatKernan

Reach Patrick Kernan at 570-991-6386 or on Twitter @PatKernan