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Is the word 'gang' too prejudicial for Syracuse homicide trial?

Mon, May 04, 2015 3:37 AM | NYGIA (Administrator)

Syracuse, NY -- Jerry Benton is going on trial later this month in the stabbing death of another man outside a Milton Avenue bar last year.

But can Senior Assistant District Attorney Melinda McGunnigle bring up his alleged gang affiliation to the jury? Benton's lawyer says no, arguing that it's "highly prejudicial."

Defense lawyer Robert Baska noted that Benton, 32, was not charged with a gang-related homicide. Benton is charged with manslaughter, accused of stabbing Bryan "Gadget" Sheppard to death June 7, 2014 outside Club Gravity bar, on Milton Avenue near the city's border with Solvay.

But McGunnigle said her key law enforcement witnesses -- including Benton's federal parole officer and Syracuse cops -- recognized Benton because he was considered a gang member.

The key piece of evidence in Benton's trial will be a videotape of the fatal stabbing.

McGunnigle said Benton's parole officer -- he was convicted of federal drug crimes -- will say she recognized Benton as the attacker. Federal authorities had labeled Benton a gang member, but never prosecuted him as such.

In addition, a Syracuse police officer who followed street gangs and recognized Benton in the video because of Benton's reputed gang affiliation, McGunnigle said.

Baska argued that McGunnigle simply wanted to bring up the gang issue to provide a motive for the crime that wasn't proven with facts. McGunnigle said there was a known conflict between Bricktown -- Benton's alleged gang -- and the 110 gang. She suggested that was an impetus for the fight.

"I do think it's a motive, but also his identity," McGunnigle said.

Benton reportedly made a reference to his membership in the Bricktown gang during a scuffle at the Onondaga County Justice Center jail, McGunnigle said.

County Court Judge Thomas J. Miller said he would offer Baska time to respond in writing before making his decision. He promised to rule by the end of the week.

But the judge appeared to look for ways today to allow the prosecution to present a case without bringing up the word "gang." For the parole officer, for example, would it be OK to tell the jury that Benton had been convicted of a previous crime without saying he had been identified as a gang member?

Benton goes to trial May 18. If found guilty, he is facing up to 25 years in state prison.

This is not a new issue. In a trial earlier this year, it wasn't made public until sentencing that a Syracuse man accused of murder was a gang member.

Lewis Swift was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison this February for the brutal beating death of Carnell Marshall. Prosecutor Matthew Doran was barred until sentencing from saying that Swift was a gang member who ordered his subordinates to carry out the fatal attack.

And in 2014, a judge barred prosecutors from labeling a Syracuse man as a gang member at a murder trial involving a death outside a South Avenue bar. That defendant was acquitted of the crime.

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