Pittston homicide defendant takes stand, says he had no choice but to shoot

By Patrick Kernan - [email protected]
Spencer -

WILKES-BARRE — Stephen Spencer took the stand in his own defense in his homicide case Thursday, telling jurors he feared for his life when he fatally shot Christopher Williams outside a Pittston bar.

The 31-year-old is accused of killing Williams, 32, Pittston, outside Saints & Sinners Irish Pub early July 9, 2017. The shooting followed an altercation that started with Williams’ cousin, Marty Williams, refusing to shake Spencer’s hand because Spencer is a black man.

In fact, Spencer was the only black person at the bar that night, according to previous trial testimony that described a racially charged atmosphere.

After prosecutors rested their case Wednesday, the defense opened Thursday morning with two brief character witnesses. They both asserted Spencer has always been a peaceful, law-abiding individual.

Most of the day, though, was taken up by Spencer’s testimony.

Originally from New Jersey, Spencer said he came to the area to find better work to support his family, and eventually got a delivery contract with Bimbo Bakeries. He said he was able to make more than $100,000 in one year with his delivery business.

The Pittston man said he’s had a license to carry a concealed weapon for the past seven years with the intention of protecting himself on his delivery route. He said he had his handgun tucked into his waistband while he was at the bar that night with friend Henry Gift.

‘We gonna get you’

Spencer said he introduced himself to Marty while he was speaking to their mutual friend Gift. But Marty simply walked away from his outstretched hand. Spencer recalls thinking, “Wow, this guy, he’s weird.”

Earlier in the week, witnesses Alaena Swingle and Mike Owens described Spencer leering behind them at the bar. But Spencer said he was simply on that side of the bar to see if he could reserve the pool table for himself and Gift.

Spencer said this is when someone yelled, “N——-, what are you doing on this side of the bar.” Spencer attributed this line to Owens. He said everyone else in the group began yelling at him too — something no other witness had suggested.

Later, he described leaving the bar, with Gift in tow. When he got outside, he said he saw a group of about four or five people walking toward him “in an aggressive manner.” One of them allegedly said, “We gonna get you, n——-.”

Behind him, he said he heard the sound of punches making contact — presumably the attack that left Gift with a black eye.

Fearing for his life, Spencer said he shouted “Stop,” pulled out his gun, and fired a single shot toward the leader of the group who he said was coming at him in a pyramid formation. That was the shot that killed Chris Williams.

Spencer stayed at the scene, handing the gun to an officer when he arrived.

“I felt and still feel that I was justified in that shooting,” Spencer said. “I was defending myself and I was defending Henry.”

Assistant District Attorney Thomas Hogans had some issues with Spencer’s story on cross-examination.

Hogans asked Spencer why he simply didn’t get into his car and leave if he felt so threatened. The shooting happened directly next to Spencer’s car.

Spencer said this wasn’t possible and wouldn’t have stopped the threat. He said he was stuck on a narrow sidewalk, with the wall of the bar on his right, the passenger side of his vehicle on his left and Chris Williams coming at him head-on.

He claimed he wouldn’t have had time to get into the car before Williams was on him. Even if he had, he would’ve been on the passenger side. And if he drove away, he wouldn’t be helping Henry, he said.

“I had to shoot at that moment,” said Spencer.

Hogans asked about one key discrepancy in testimony: Swingle claimed Spencer shouted “let him die” after shooting Chris, while Spencer and Gift claimed he was yelling “stay back.”

Spencer said the issue likely comes down to racism, saying Swingle is likely racist as she spends time with people who espouse racist ideas.

“These are racist people that are trying to come at me,” the defendant testified.

Fight over expert

The defense team has hired Emanuel Kapelsohn, a firearms consultant who has been testifying as an expert witness in matters of ballistics and use of force for 34 years.

But prosecutor Hogans and defense attorney John Pike battled for nearly 90 minutes regarding Kapelsohn’s résumé.

Kapelsohn never got to testify about the case itself, with Luzerne County President Judge Richard M. Hughes III instead pushing the rest of his testimony to Friday morning. It’s unclear what, if anything, Kapelsohn will be allowed to testify about.

Pittston suspect describes attackers as racist

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