As Charleston murder case weakens, investigators say they know who killed Brian Holmes, but need evidence
Nearly two years to the day after Brian Holmes was shot to death in his car around 3 a.m. on Charleston’s East Side, the murder case against the only man arrested in the case fell apart in a Charleston courtroom.
In a courtroom stunner, defense and prosecution lawyers identified another man, who has not been arrested, as the suspected triggerman in the 2011 killing.
The focus of the hearing Friday was Jerell Risher, 23, who has been in jail awaiting trial for nearly two years on charges of murder, hindering police and possession of a weapon during a violent crime. The North Charleston man was seeking reconsideration of his bail, hoping for an amount his family could arrange.
Risher was arrested in August 2011, after a witness put him at the scene of Holmes’ killing. Police had said Risher spoke to Holmes about “the purchase of illegal narcotics” and approached his car before Risher was shot.
Holmes, a married 33-year-old accountant whose father was then the president of the S.C. Baptist Convention, had driven to America Street on July 18, 2011, looking for cocaine, according to prosecution and defense lawyers in the case.
“In the course of the investigation, they determined that (Holmes) had a cocaine addiction and a loaded firearm under his seat,” Circuit Public Defender Ashley Pennington told Judge Stephanie McDonald Friday.
Ninth Circuit Assistant Solicitor Chad Simpson said Holmes had a gun because he had been robbed previously in Columbia under similar circumstances.
At some point while driving around the East Side, Holmes made contact with Risher and two other men, prosecutors believe, then he went to a bank machine, and then something went bad. Police found him in the driver’s seat of his car, which had struck a parked car, dead at the scene from a single gunshot.
Risher was charged with murder, though he wasn’t specifically accused of firing the shot that killed Holmes.
“You don’t have to be the triggerman to be guilty of murder,” 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said Friday, after the hearing.
According to the prosecution and the defense, the key witness in the case, Tara Ferrell, has now changed her story about the events.
“What she described is the polar opposite” of what she previously told police, said Pennington, who obtained an affidavit from her.
Simpson said Risher was at the scene of the crime and saw what happened, but he conceded that prosecuting Risher on the murder and weapons charge would now be very difficult.
“As the case stands today, without further information ... we have a serious evidentiary problem,” Simpson said in court, as the families of Risher and Holmes looked on.
Risher’s bail was reduced, as a result, and he was ordered confined to his grandmother’s home in North Charleston if his family can arrange the $25,000 bail. Risher was 21 when he was arrested, with no prior record other than a misdemeanor marijuana possession charge, and has been held in jail since Aug. 31, 2011.
Simpson said there is “rock-solid” evidence that Risher was at the scene, which is related to the charge of hindering police. But he said another man is believed to have committed the act of killing Holmes.
Pennington, and then Simpson, both named the alleged shooter as Anthony Coleman, 20, of North Charleston. Attempts to reach Coleman for comment were unsuccessful.
“We do believe at this point that Anthony Coleman pulled the trigger,” Simpson said.
Coleman was charged in 2009 with assault and battery with intent to kill in the shooting of Corey Rivers in Charleston. The charges were dropped in April 2011 because the victim wouldn’t cooperate, according to court records and police.
A 2011 strong-arm robbery charge against Coleman ended up in a plea deal for the same reason — the victim’s lack of cooperation.
“Mr. Coleman should have been off the streets before the (Holmes) murder ever happened,” said Charleston Police Det. Richard Burckhardt, who was not at the hearing Friday. “That’s the real shame of it.”
“Mr. Coleman is definitely a person of interest in this investigation, that’s no secret,” Burckhardt said. “And it’s not over yet.”
Meanwhile, largely due to the witness changing her statement, Pennington said the murder and weapon possession charges facing Risher had become “virtually un-triable.” He suggested the state was keeping Risher in jail to try to get him to testify as a witness.
“My client cannot continue to be held to extort information and make him a witness against Mr. Coleman,” Pennington said.
Simpson denied that Risher is being kept in jail to coerce his testimony.
“What got us to where we were today was an eyewitness recanting, which happened in June, but we just learned of two weeks ago,” Simpson said after the hearing. “How many people do we arrest on a witness who keeps changing her story?”
Burckhardt, the detective on the case, said he’s not entirely surprised by what happened.
“With these cases, in that part of the city, our witness are, well, let’s say they aren’t delivering milk at 3 in the morning,” he said. “We don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing witnesses.”
The one strong charge remaining against Risher, obstructing police, would likely result in a sentence not much longer than the time he’s already spent in jail, both sides agreed.
“I have grave concerns about the amount of time this defendant has spent in jail,” McDonald said, before agreeing to reduce Risher’s bail. “I hope the state is able to indict whoever is the proper person for this (crime).”
Risher’s family declined to speak with a reporter after the hearing, as did most of Holmes’ family members.
“We just want the proper person to be arrested and convicted,” said Katherine Holmes, Brian Holmes’ widow. She had asked McDonald to not reduce Risher’s bail, so long as he’s still charged with murder.
Burckhardt said the police have not exhausted their options.
“Investigations get cold, they get hot again,” he said. “We turn over all the stones we can. We haven’t given up.”
Reach David Slade at 937-5552 or Twitter @DSladeNews.