YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) — A murder trial kicked off Tuesday in which the defendant didn’t have a lawyer but the main prosecution witness had to have one appointed for him.
Brian Donlow, 25, was having a bench trial before Judge Anthony D’Apolito on charges of aggravated murder and attempted murder for the Nov. 18, 2018 shooting death of 21-year-old Christopher Jackson, of Warren, and the wounding of another man, Carlos Davis.
Donlow is representing himself, although the court did appoint a lawyer to be “stand by counsel” who will take over the case should Donlow request it. Donlow was convicted of an unrelated murder in February 2020 and is presently serving a 21 year to life prison sentence.
Police said the driver of the car was shot after an argument. Jackson, who was in the back seat, was also shot.
The trial hit a snag when the third witness, Davis, who is in custody for unrelated charges from Trumbull County, refused to answer any questions.
When he was asked how old he was, Davis said, “I plead the fifth,” referencing his Fifth Amendment right against self incrimination.
When asked if he had an attorney, Davis, who is in custody on a conviction on an unrelated charge, again answered, “I plead the fifth.”
Assistant Prosecutor Dawn Cantalamessa asked Judge D’Apolito to appoint an attorney for Davis so he could be advised of his rights and Davis conferred with attorney Ron Yarwood for about an hour.
After they returned to court, Yarwood told the judge Davis was prepared to invoke the Fifth Amendment and refuse to answer any questions regardless of the question by either the judge, the prosecutors or Donlow.
Yarwood said he advised his client that he could be found in contempt of court if the judge finds that he has no right to invoke the Fifth Amendment, but Davis relayed to Yarwood that he was prepared to take that risk.
Judge D’Apolito asked Cantalamessa if she was going to ask Davis any questions about criminal activity and she said no. Even with that assurance, Yarwood said Davis was concerned that without knowing what the questions were, he was afraid he may be asked something that could be about criminal activity.
Judge D’Apolito said that someone’s right to invoke the Fifth Amendment is not absolute. He said a person must have some sort of potential criminal liability to invoke the Fifth Amendment, and if they do not, they can’t avoid it.
Davis was found in contempt of court and sentenced to 30 days in jail, the maximum sentence for someone found guilty of their first offense for contempt. The sentence will run consecutive to the sentence Davis is serving now from Trumbill County.
Prosecutors then continued their case.
Jackson was found shot to death about 2 a.m. in a running car in a field at Bennington and Stewart avenues on the east side.
In a brief opening statement, Assistant Prosecutor Mike Yacovone said Davis and Jackson picked up three men who turned out to be Donlow and the other two defendants in the case, and with no warning, they shot both Davis and Jackson.
Jackson died in the car while Davis ran to a nearby home and collapsed on the porch. That homeowner called police.
Donlow also gave a brief opening statement, saying there is no evidence to show he was in the car with Jackson and Davis.
In February 2020, Donlow was convicted of the June 30, 2019 shooting death of 30-year-old Brandon Wylie at the Plaza View apartment complex on the east side.
Also convicted with Donlow was 23-year-old Stephon Hopkins. They are both serving prison sentences of 21 years to life.
Hopkins and a third man, 23-year-old Lorice Moore, face the same charges as Donlow does in the Jackson case. They will be tried at a later date.