Shortly after 1 a.m. on July 22, 1994, 30-year-old Verna Robinson was fatally shot in the Hazelwood neighborhood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
The day before, Robinson had been scheduled to be a witness in two court hearings. In one case, she was to testify against 18-year-old Terrell Johnson, a neighborhood youth whom she accused of beating her because she had failed to pay him $100 she owed for a drug purchase. In the other case, she was a witness to a street gang shooting. Neither hearing occurred. Afterward, the police gave her $20 and took her to her mother’s home in the heart of the street gang’s territory, even though Robinson was supposed to be under police protection because she was a witness.
Police believed Robinson, a crack addict, was shot to silence her. Robinson’s death prompted Pittsburgh officials to create a formal witness protection program.
Shortly after the murder, a neighborhood resident told police there were three men involved. One looked like Harold Cabbagestalk, a gang member, and another was Dorian Moorefield, also a gang member, the neighbor said. The resident said the third was a youth about 13 or 14 years old.
Police suspected Johnson was also involved because of the assault charge Robinson had filed against him, although she had identified her attacker as man by the name of “Ralph.”
When Johnson saw his name in a newspaper, he voluntarily went to police and said he had witnesses to show he was in a house several blocks from the murder at the time of the killing. After checking out his alibi, police released him.
About two and a half weeks after the murder, Evelyn “Dolly” McBryde was arrested for shoplifting. Faced with the possibility of going to jail for theft charges and numerous outstanding bench warrants, she told police she had information about the murder. Police did not take a detailed statement at that time because McBryde was under the influence of drugs.
More than five months later, McBryde gave a tape-recorded statement, saying that she saw Robinson that night at a drug house. She said she saw Robinson leave and decided to follow her. She said she heard a shot as she left the building and hid in some bushes. She said she looked out and saw Cabbagestalk, Moorefield and Johnson surrounding Robinson, who was wounded, but still standing.
Over the next several years, McBryde would give nearly a dozen different accounts of what she saw and heard that night. At one point, McBryde said that Cabbagestalk yelled, “This is what snitches get,” and Robinson was shot in the head.
In February 1995, Cabbagestalk, Moorefield and Johnson were charged with Robinson’s murder. Cabbagestalk was arrested and Johnson immediately turned himself in to the police. Moorefield remained a fugitive until turning himself in a year later.
Johnson’s case was severed from the others and he went on trial in June 1995 in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court. McBryde admitted she had a considerable criminal past (arrests under 11 different names in several states with several different Social Security numbers and dates of birth) and that a number of charges were being dismissed by prosecutors as a result of her testimony. Additionally, charges relating to allegations that McBryde was prostituting her young children out to men in exchange for crack cocaine and money were not pursued as a result of her cooperation.
Johnson’s lawyer did not call the alibi witnesses who said that Johnson was in a home several blocks from the murder and that he went to bed at 11 p.m., two hours before the crime.
Johnson was convicted by a jury and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Not long after, Cabbagestalk went on trial. He was acquitted of the murder, but convicted of conspiracy and sentenced to five to 10 years in prison.
In March 1996, Moorefield turned himself in to the police. He was acquitted at trial in September 1996.
In 1998, Johnson was granted a new trial after a judge ruled that Johnson’s trial lawyer had provided an inadequate legal defense for failing to call five witnesses, some of whom would have provided an alibi for Johnson’s whereabouts at the time of the crime.
But the ruling was reversed on appeal.
In 2001, students at the Innocence Institute of Western Pennsylvania began investigating the case. The Innocence Institute is a partnership between the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication of Point Park University and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette under the guidance of Institute director Bill Moushey.
Two years later, their findings were published in the Post-Gazette in an article written by Moushey. They uncovered a witness who said she was with McBryde the evening of the shooting and they had been prostituting themselves to earn money to buy drugs. McBryde never left the house where they were having sex with men, the witness said.
Based on these findings, a post-conviction motion for a new trial was filed. At a hearing held in November 2007, another new witness testified. This witness testified that McBryde was not in the bushes at the time of the crime, but was with him smoking crack cocaine.
In February, 2008, Johnson was awarded a new trial.
Johnson went on trial a second time in September 2012. Armed with the new evidence, Johnson was acquitted by a jury on September 12 and released.
– Maurice Possley