Shortly after 11 p.m. on September 2, 1986, Charles Stokes and his brother, David Stokes, attempted to sell some cocaine to Anthony Cooke and Michael Hosten outside of the After Five Lounge in Springfield, Massachusetts. Although the sale was not consummated, Cooke and Hosten were still nearby when several other young men approached and inquired about buying drugs.
As Charles Stokes was showing his drugs, one of the men grabbed at either the cocaine or a gold chain on David Stokes’ neck. Cooke grabbed the man, who then pulled a pistol and shot Cooke in the shoulder. Cooke, Hosten, and the Stokes brothers fled and the man kept firing. Charles Stokes tripped and fell and the gunman stood over him and robbed him of half a gram of cocaine, $40 and his cigarettes. The gunman then fled.
One of the gunman’s bullets struck and killed a bystander, 25-year-old Victoria Seymour, who had been at the Lounge with friends. She was shot in the back and died hours later.
At least one witness said the shooter was with a group of men who fled in a blue and grey van with distinctive custom made windows on the sides of the vehicle. The van had Connecticut license plates.
The day after the shooting, 16-year-old Lavon Dixon told police that he had been in a Pizza King restaurant with a friend, 15-year-old Al Chase, when six men came in, inquiring about a gold chain that one of the men claimed had been stolen from him at a Run DMC concert two days earlier. Four of the men left in the blue and grey van and two of them left in a separate car, Dixon said.
Three weeks later, on September 24, 1986, Springfield police showed Dixon a large number of booking photographs obtained from police in Hartford, Connecticut, located about a half hour drive south of Springfield. Dixon pointed to the photograph of 21-year-old Mark Schand of Hartford and said he was 50 percent sure Schand was the man he saw in the Pizza King. Dixon pointed to a photograph of Schand’s brother, Roger, and said he was 40 percent sure Roger Schand was in the Pizza King.
Mark Schand was arrested October 29, 1986 and charged with first degree murder, robbery and assault.
By the time he went on trial in Hampden County Superior Court in November 1987, the prosecution had six witnesses who said they saw Schand shoot Cooke, rob Charles Stokes and fire the shot that killed Victoria Seymour.
Cooke, the Stokes brothers, as well as Hosten, all identified Mark Schand as the gunman. Two other men who were at the scene, Willie Darko and Michael Bernard, also identified Mark Schand, though they gave accounts that conflicted with the testimony of Cooke, the Stokes brothers and Hosten.
Dixon and Chase testified that they saw Schand at the Pizza King prior to the shooting. Another witness, Kenneth Whitted, was called to testify that he had seen Schand in Springfield in prior occasions to rebut an alleged statement that Mark Schand made when he was arrested that he had only been to Springfield one time.
Schand did not testify, but the defense presented seven witnesses who said Schand was in Hartford, 27 miles away, between 11 p.m. and midnight, on the night of the shooting.
On November 20, 1987, Schand was convicted of all charges and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
In 1990, Mark Schand’s brother, Roger Schand was charged with being one of the men involved in the shooting. Prosecutors disclosed evidence to Roger Schand’s attorneys that had not been disclosed to Mark Schand’s attorneys. The evidence consisted of police reports that detailed how a Hartford man named Randy Weaver, who owned a blue and grey van and looked remarkably similar to Mark Schand, had been suspected of being the man who was in the Pizza King restaurant asking about a stolen gold chain.
The police reports said that Weaver was a suspect in the shooting at the After Five Lounge and that he had been questioned, but not charged.
A mistrial was declared in the trial of Roger Schand in 1991 after Charles and David Stokes, whom prosecutors said had identified Roger as being with Mark at the shooting, refused to testify. Charles Stokes originally received a suspended 18- to 20-year sentence for robbing an elderly man in 1987 as part of a plea bargaining agreement that resulted from his testimony at Mark Schand’s trial. But by the time he came to Roger Schand’s trial, Charles Stokes had been ordered to serve the term because he was found to have violated the terms of his probation by beating another man within a month after he received the suspended sentence. After the mistrial, the charges against Roger Schand were dismissed.
Also in 1991, Mark Schand’s attorneys, John and Linda Thompson, filed a motion for new trial claiming that the Weaver police reports were evidence of an alternate suspect that the prosecution had improperly failed to disclose to Schand’s trial attorney. The motion also alleged that Charles Stokes had recanted his identification of Mark Schand. Additionally, the motion alleged that Springfield police had withheld reports that showed that the identification of Mark Schand by the Stokes brothers, Cooke and others was flawed and improper. For example, Charles Stokes later testified that when he identified Mark Schand in a lineup, he actually knew everyone in the lineup (some were police officers who had arrested him in the past, two were men in the lockup that he knew from the street) except for Schand.
At a hearing was in February 1992 Stokes repeated his recantation and testified that he had falsely identified Schand to get a deal on unrelated charges. The motion for new trial was denied and the Massachusetts Court of Appeals upheld the decision in 1995. The appeals court found that the withheld evidence would not have changed the outcome of Mark Schand’s trial, and that Charles Stokes’ recantation was “completely false.”
Over the years, Mark Schand’s family hired numerous private investigators to look into the case, remaining steadfast in their belief in Schand’s innocence. Schand’s wife, Mia, visited Schand every weekend.
In 2010, Centurion Ministries, a Princeton, New Jersey-based organization that investigates wrongful convictions, began investigating the evidence in the case. By that time, Charles Stokes had previously recanted and Michael Hosten had given a death bed recantation in 2006. As Centurion investigated, Anthony Cooke recanted as well. All said they had falsely identified Schand to obtain leniency on charges that were pending against them at the time. Moreover, Kenneth Whitted recanted his testimony that he had seen Schand in Springfield.
Centurion Ministries investigators, including its founder, James McCloskey, also uncovered evidence that on the night of the crime, Weaver and three others drove to Springfield to try to find a gold chain that had been stolen from Weaver at a Run DMC concert in Springfield two days before the shooting. Weaver and the others all recall leaving the Pizza King and driving to the After Five Lounge and being there when the shooting occurred. All four told Centurion Ministries that they knew Mark Schand and that he was not present at any time on the day of the shooting.
The investigators also determined that one of two other men who was seen at the Pizza King just prior to the shooting and seen leaving in a separate car, was named Tracy Fisher. In interviews with the investigators, Fisher said that he had followed Weaver and the others in the hope of obtaining cocaine. He admitted that he was the one who had grabbed at the cocaine—the action which precipitated the shooting of Cooke and Seymour.
Fisher, who was interviewed in prison where he was serving a 50-year sentence for a 1987 murder in Hartford, denied that he was the gunman. However, police reports subsequently obtained by Centurion showed that initial descriptions of the gunman said the shooter was about 30 years old and had bad or “rotten” teeth. At the time of the shooting, Mark Schand was 21 and had a distinctive gold tooth in the front of his mouth. Fisher was 28 years old and previously had suffered serious damage to his teeth when he was shot by a police officer.
In 2013, Mark Schand’s attorneys, John and Linda Thompson, and the Centurion Ministries, filed a motion for a new trial based on the newly discovered evidence. They claimed that all six of the prosecution’s witnesses who identified Schand as the gunman knew each other and had collaborated to frame Schand so they could get favorable deals on charges pending against them. They also claimed that the police had orchestrated lineups so that Schand would be selected and that the prosecution hid evidence showing the lineups were corrupted.
In August and September, 2013, Hampden Superior Court Judge C. Jeffrey Kinder heard testimony over several days. On October 4, 2013, Hampden District Attorney Mark G. Mastroianni filed a document saying he did not oppose Schand’s motion for a new trial, and Judge Kinder granted Schand’s motion for a new trial on the basis of newly discovered evidence.
Schand was released on October 4, 2013, and the prosecution dismissed the charges on October 16. Schand filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Springfield and Hampdem County in August 2015.
– Maurice Possley