YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) — You can call it a misunderstanding or a miscommunication, but the end result is DNA testing in the murder case of a 4-year-old Struthers boy that was to take place this month was postponed.
The reason, according to defense attorney Lynn Maro, is because a defense expert hired to watch defense testing at a Virginia lab thought he could watch the testing via Zoom. Maro represents Kimonie Bryant, 25, who could face the death penalty if convicted in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court of the September 2020 shooting death of Rowan Sweeney.
Instead, the defense expert was told he had to be at the facility where he would watch in a conference room on closed-circuit television.
Efforts to reschedule are hampered because of a COVID-19 outbreak where the expert works, and he has to work his schedule around that, Maro said.
Judge Anthony D’Apolito, who ordered in January that the defense expert be allowed to watch the testing, was clearly not happy.
Prosecutors say the testing is crucial in determining if Bryant or co-defendant Brandon Crump, 18, be tried first.
“It’s holding up the whole case — both cases,” Judge D’Apolito said. “I’m getting beyond frustrated by this.”
Another wrinkle was added when the attorneys told the judge that an outside observer for the defense might not even be needed. Maro and co-counsel John Juhasz had asked for an independent observer to watch the testing — in person — because the state was told as far back as November 2020 by the state Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation that the samples collected by investigators would be consumed, and thus there would be nothing left for anyone to test after the initial round of testing was complete.
However, attorneys were told by the lab that some of the samples may be left over after all when the testing is complete.
Judge D’Apolito ordered that the testing be completed by the end of June, as well as a report on the testing. He also said the lab holding the DNA is to issue a report on whether or not the samples will be consumed.
Juhasz and Maro had been arguing for the observer to watch the testing in person, and after several months of motions and a hearing, Judge D’Apoilito ruled in January that the observer be allowed to watch but he did not have to be in the room when the evidence was tested.
Judge D’Apolito said he based that ruling on the fact that it is the policy of labs to not allow outside personnel to be physically present when the samples were tested.
Assistant Prosecutor Jennifer McLaughlin said the lab was adamant that the observer could watch on closed circuit television — which usually means being on site and watching a feed there.
However, Maro and Juhasz said they were under the impression the lab wanted no outsiders at all, which is why their expert was going to watch on Zoom. Maro said the expert emailed the lab four days before the tests were to be done to get a Zoom link for the tests, only to be told he had to be there.
Bryant and Crump were indicted on capital specifications for the boy’s death, which means the death penalty can be applied if they are found guilty. However, because Crump was a juvenile at the time the crime was committed, under state law, he can not be put to death.
Bryant was originally indicted in October 2020 for Sweeney’s death that was part of a superseding indictment in March 2021 that included Crump as well as Andre McCoy, 21.
McCoy was wounded in the same shooting that killed Sweeney and injured two others. Prosecutors have not been able to find him and they have not said how McCoy could have been shot in the head yet still part of the plot that resulted in Sweeney’s death. McCoy could also face the death penalty if he is convicted.
Three others were also charged in the superseding indictment with other roles in the case.
Prosecutors have never said what items were collected that has the DNA that is being tested. They say they need the tests because the theory of the crime has changed and the results will determine who will be tried first, which is a reason why no trial dates have been set yet.
Police and prosecutors said Sweeney was killed by a group of men who came to the Perry Street home of his mother to rob her boyfriend of several thousand dollars he received from a stimulus check.