The defense attorney needed 10 seconds Tuesday morning to fire the first salvo of his opening statement in the murder trial of 26-year-old Tyrel Collins.
That was all the time it took for the proceeding to abruptly end in a mistrial.
The attorney’s words echoed the thoughts of law officials and residents of Charleston’s East Side in October 2011, when police said Collins gunned down Solomon Chisolm as the 24-year-old played cards at Mall Playground. Once a suspect in a half-dozen slayings that authorities never proved, Chisolm himself became a homicide victim.
Collins and Chisolm were known players in the drug game on the East Side, a community with a long-standing reputation as a violent, open-air narcotics market.
As Collins’ murder trial began, a solicitor hinted at how the neighborhood’s checkered past made it difficult for investigators in the case. And Assistant Public Defender Jason King fed off his opponent’s opening remarks.
“Good morning,” King said. “The solicitors talk about the East Side. This is the East Side. It’s a high-crime area, and Solomon Chisolm was legendary in this area as a killer.”
Those four sentences brought the proceeding to a halt as Circuit Judge J.C. Nicholson declared a mistrial. He agreed with solicitors that King’s words had likely tainted jurors, preventing them from impartially examining evidence and testimony.
It was an unexpected turn, and no timetable for a new trial has been set. Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said many factors will play into the scheduling, including witness availability.
“We have a tight schedule with murder cases,” she said. “An event like (Tuesday’s) has a domino effect.”
After the half-hour proceeding Tuesday, King apologized to Collins’ loved ones outside the courtroom. His client remains in jail.
“I’m sorry,” the attorney told them. “I didn’t mean for this to happen. That was not my intent.”
Assistant Solicitor Greg Voigt started the trial by portraying the East Side’s troubled past.
Residents’ deep-rooted distrust of authorities presented challenges to the Charleston Police Department’s probe of the slaying. Voigt planned to call witnesses with dubious pasts of their own, he acknowledged.
Voigt said prosecutors would try to prove that on Oct. 28, 2011, Collins walked up to Chisolm at Mall Playground on Columbus Street and shot him several times before firing one final bullet into his head.
“This is perhaps one of the most lawless” communities in Charleston, Voigt told the jurors. “The problem with lawlessness is that it breeds lawlessness.”
Ending his remarks, Voigt asked jurors to give King their “rapt” attention. That’s when King launched his statement about how Chisolm fit into life on East Side streets.
Assistant Solicitor Stephanie Linder interrupted and called for the mistrial. The 12 jurors were promptly dismissed.
As attorneys discussed Linder’s motion, King brought up instances of violence in Chisolm’s past. In many, witnesses had often lost their nerve to testify against him.
Crimes he was accused of started in May 2005, when he was charged with shooting an adversary in the stomach on America Street. Prosecutors dismissed the charge.
By 19 he had accumulated three murder charges. Between August and October 2006, Chisolm was accused of killing three men and wounding a fourth during shootings on the East Side. He avoided being convicted of any homicide.
“I know that’s not the same as not being a killer,” Voigt told the judge Tuesday. “But ... (King) can’t come out and drop a bomb like that — something unsubstantiated that he doesn’t have to substantiate.”
The judge gave King a chance to explain why the trial should proceed.
King had planned to present a case for self-defense, he said. But the only evidence of that was some gunshot residue found on the victim’s hand, he said. Such residue is often found on shooting victims.
Collins also had been wounded in a shooting four days before Chisolm’s slaying during a confrontation on Interstate 26 in North Charleston, King said. That incident ended in a 28-year-old man’s death. Chisolm was a suspect in that killing, North Charleston police spokesman Spencer Pryor confirmed Tuesday.
During a trial, King also wanted to ferret out “the likelihood that many other people would have wanted to kill this man,” he said.
But the judge noted that King’s two arguments were contradictory: One implied that Collins had shot Chisolm in self-defense; the other that someone else had carried out a hit on Chisolm.
“This whole community believes that he’s killed many people,” King said. “This man had a target on his head.”
King read from a newspaper article published after the slaying in which Wilson called Chisolm a “heartless, dangerous criminal” who caused Charleston residents to lose sleep at night.
Raising his voice in scolding the attorney, Nicholson said King needed to show more evidence than “something you read in a damn newspaper.”
“You’ve got to offer some foundation,” the judge said, “before you stand up there and say he’s a legendary killer.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.
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