WILKES-BARRE — Neither side disputed that Stephen Spencer shot and killed Christopher Williams last summer outside a Pittston bar.
But after four hours of deliberation Friday, jurors acquitted Spencer of an open count of homicide and all other charges, including aggravated assault and terroristic threats.
The verdict drew sobs from Williams’ family and Spencer’s as well.
“From the beginning, I thought this case was more than it appeared to be,” said defense attorney John Pike. “It was more than just someone shooting an unarmed person.
“And the jury saw it, they saw it for what it was,” he went on. “Ugly racism.”
Spencer’s defense team had argued he was only defending himself and a friend when he shot Williams after racial tensions ran high inside the bar that night. Spencer testified Thursday that a group of would-be attackers was coming at him outside.
Spencer’s mother, Stephanie Evans, was ecstatic she’ll soon have her son home after 15 months in the county lockup.
“I’m going to give him a big hug, and have him carry me around everywhere,” she said.
Evans said she knew all along that her son handled the situation responsibly and that he had done nothing wrong.
Spencer, 31, of Pittston, stood accused of shooting and killing fellow Pittston man Williams, 32, outside of Saints & Sinners Irish Pub in the early morning hours of July 9, 2017.
He’s been arguing since his arrest that he was defending himself from a racially motivated attack —Spencer was the only black man in the bar that night — while prosecutors have called it unprovoked.
Friday began with testimony from Emanuel Kapelsohn, a certified firearms instructor who’s been testifying as an expert witness for over three decades.
While the defense hoped to use Kapelsohn as an expert in the use of force, Luzerne County President Judge Richard M. Hughes III only allowed him to be admitted as an expert in firearms, ballistics and shooting scene reconstruction.
However, it didn’t take long before Kapelsohn began to make arguments that seemed to imply his belief that Spencer was justified in shooting Williams.
Kapelsohn spoke on the angle the bullet entered Williams’ body — 30 degrees. Kapelsohn said for the bullet to have entered his body at that angle, Spencer would have needed to be firing from a vantage point considerably higher than Williams, assuming Williams was standing up straight, which is what his cousin, Marty Williams, suggested happened.
Or, he said, Christopher Williams could have been in a crouching position and Spencer shot from straight on, which seemed to be consistent with Spencer’s testimony that Williams and a group of his friends were looking to attack Spencer.
“They’re coming forward aggressively, looking to attack,” Kapelsohn said.
Defense attorney Pike seized on a point by Assistant District Attorney Thomas Hogans during Thursday’s testimony — the shooting took place immediately next to Spencer’s car on the passenger side.
Kapelsohn said, if he were truly being attacked, Spencer would not have had the time to cross to the driver’s side, fumble with the total of five keys on his key ring and get in his car and drive away, as he suggested the alleged attackers could have been on him in less than two seconds.
“It’s too close and too fast to not act immediately,” he said.
On cross-examination, Hogans tried to paint Kapelsohn’s report as biased, saying he focused only on Spencer’s version of events.
Kapelsohn disagreed, saying he went through all of the evidence that attorneys from both sides also went through. He suggested the evidence was consistent with Spencer’s account, and he called into question Marty’s claim that Spencer leapt out and shot his cousin for no reason.
“I don’t think they were going out to apologize and offer to buy him a drink,” Kapelsohn said.
‘It is about race’
During his closing argument, Pike rebutted a claim in prosecutor Brittany Quinn’s opening statement about the case not being about race.
“Yes, it is about race,” Pike said in a staccato rhythm.
Based on the testimony of Mike Owens and Marty Williams — both inside the bar that night — it was clear the case was racially motivated, from when Marty refused to shake Spencer’s hand due to him being black to when Owens used the N-word, the defender argued.
“They’re mean, they’re hateful and they’re racist,” he said of the people at the bar. “They don’t like black people, they don’t like Asian people. They don’t like anybody except themselves.”
Pike said the story told by friends of the Williamses is “fabricated, false and nothing but lies.”
According to Pike, if Spencer had not shot in self-defense, things might have gone very differently.
“Could he have been strangled? Could he have been lynched? We don’t know because he stopped this threat,” Pike said. “I might be here representing Marty Williams right now.”
‘Stop, I have a gun’
Hogans was quick to acknowledge the self-proclaimed racism of Marty and Owens, but sought to remind Pike of one thing.
“What the defense is missing is that Marty Williams and Mike Owens aren’t on trial,” Hogans said.
He reminded jurors there was zero evidence that Chris did anything racist or aggressive — indeed, he barely figured into any of the witnesses’ testimony until the shooting actually took place.
“We’re here today just because Chris was at the bar,” Hogans said. “That’s it. He was just there.”
As for the self-defense argument, Hogans said an individual in Pennsylvania has the requirement to flee from an attack if he or she is able before using deadly force. Since the shooting happened right next to Spencer’s car, Hogans said he clearly could’ve fled.
Hogans also criticized Spencer’s failure to announce that he was armed.
“Even really drunk racists are gonna stop if he says, ‘Stop, I have a gun,’” he argued.
After the verdict, Hogans issued a statement:
“We respect the jury’s verdict and realize they had a very tough decision to make in this case. Obviously, we felt we had enough evidence to convict Stephen Spencer under the circumstances.
“Although we may disagree with the outcome, the justice system worked and we know the jury carefully considered all of the evidence presented by the commonwealth and the defense in reaching a verdict.”
Luzerne County President Judge Richard M. Hughes III granted a defense motion to immediately release Spencer. He was quickly whisked back to the Luzerne County Correctional Facility for processing.
Reach Patrick Kernan at 570-991-6386 or on Twitter @PatKernan