None of the DNA or fingerprints on 17-year-old Marley Lion’s vehicle the night he was slain belonged to any of the four men arrested in his death.
But some of the DNA samples were so insignificant that a state forensics scientist said it would have been difficult to positively match them to anyone.
That’s why, the expert testified Thursday in the murder trial of 32-year-old Ryan P. Deleston, the DNA went untested.
Circuit Public Defender Ashley Pennington highlighted the unknown and the lack of hard evidence that his client shot Lion on June 16, 2012, outside Famous Joe’s Bar and Grill in West Ashley.
The alleged shortcomings in the Charleston Police Department investigation and how detectives persuaded witnesses to point at Deleston have formed the basis for Pennington’s emerging defense.
In three days of state testimony, the 12 jurors have listened to more than two dozen witnesses. They included police officers, medical experts and a robbery victim.
But the witnesses who have professed direct knowledge of the shooting all have lied to the police at some point during the investigation. Most have criminal backgrounds and have pleaded guilty to lesser charges in exchange for their testimony against Deleston.
Pennington instead has asserted that the triggerman was 29-year-old Bryan Latrell Rivers. It’s still unclear whether Deleston will tell his side of the story.
The third day of testimony delved into the police investigation that toppled a crew of robbers and amassed evidence against them.
Sgt. David Osborne, a member of Charleston’s homicide unit who helped oversee the probe, said it was clear early on that there would be few impartial witnesses.
“It really was one of those whodunit investigations,” Osborne testified.
Detectives considered various theories. Just before he was shot, Lion had dropped off his girlfriend at a West Ashley apartment complex near where some Bloods gang members lived. The police entertained the theory that the gang members had followed Lion and killed him in an initiation ritual.
Detectives arrested several of the gang members on unrelated drug charges, but none were connected to the slaying.
Investigators took names of four possible suspects who had been seen on the morning of Lion’s death in the Ardmore neighborhood. One was Deleston.
But they had little evidence against him, so the police looked for help.
They found some in Frank Middleton, 65, the man who Solicitor Scarlett Wilson called the “King of Crime” in Ardmore. His rap sheet shows robberies, and he liked to get high on crack cocaine.
Middleton testified that he had seen Deleston daily in Ardmore and hung out with him two or three times each week. He knew the way Deleston held a gun and how his body was built.
The police contacted him in jail, where he was serving time for robbery, because he knew the players in Ardmore’s drug and robbery game. The second time he watched the video of the shooting, Middleton testified, he recognized the shooter as Deleston.
But Pennington pointed out that Middleton thought someone else had walked by Lion’s sport-utility vehicle just before the crew tried to rob him. Julius Perrell Brown, 33, later confessed to that role.
Middleton also had reason to name Deleston instead of Rivers: He had been prison roommates with Rivers.
And like all observers, Middleton couldn’t see the shooter’s face. Experts at the U.S. Secret Service tried to clarify the video, but their efforts were fruitless.
The gun’s role
A jailhouse snitch wouldn’t be enough to bring down Deleston, Osborne knew.
But the talk on West Ashley’s streets was about how Lion’s death was senseless, Osborne said. Even criminals broke their usual no-snitching code to offer tips.
One was Bobby Warthaw, a 25-year-old who hesitantly agreed to buy the pistol that Deleston had been offering for sale. Warthaw recruited his cousin to help.
Testifying Thursday, the cousin said he got just $1,200 of a $13,000 reward from Crime Stoppers. Warthaw got the rest.
“He was greedy,” the cousin said. “He took everything.”
The cousin wore a police camera on his chest because Warthaw didn’t want to. It captured the cousin taking the gun from Deleston in exchange for $200 in cash.
Detectives finally had the Sig Sauer P232 used to kill Lion.
But when the police brought him in for questioning, Deleston said he had simply sold the gun for its owner, George Ellis Brown, 28. He didn’t know it had been used in a homicide, he told detectives. When he was told that witnesses said he was the killer, he laughed wildly.
“Get the (expletive) out of here, man,” he said in the police interview. “I’ve got nothing to do with nothing.”
Pennington cast doubt on the interrogation techniques that Osborne and other detectives used to get those statements against Deleston. Osborne acknowledged that he threatened more trouble for Rivers if he didn’t give up Deleston.
“What we wanted to get,” Osborne testified, “was the truth.”
Rivers eventually acknowledged seeing Deleston shoot Lion, but he denied involvement. That didn’t come until this summer, when he accepted a plea deal on voluntary manslaughter.
The evidence factor
The jurors still don’t know that Rivers shot a man during a robbery two weeks before Lion’s slaying — a condition set by Judge Kristi Harrington. They are aware, though, that he robbed a young couple in downtown Charleston only an hour earlier.
Chris McCandlish testified Thursday that he was frightened as he faced the barrel of Rivers’ gun.
Last year, McCandlish asked detectives whether the man who robbed him might have been involved in Lion’s death. The police said no, McCandlish told The Post and Courier.
This summer, prosecutors finally goaded that information out of George Brown, who drove the robbery crew around that night.
But without the criminals’ testimony, investigators have little evidence placing Deleston at the scene.
They sent away five DNA swabs for testing. State Law Enforcement Division analyst Amanda Webb said some of them contained no DNA.
One swab, taken from the driver’s door handle, was a mix of DNA from three people, including Lion and his girlfriend. There wasn’t enough DNA left, Webb said, to match it with anyone else. So instead of comparing it to the suspects, Webb quit.
“I knew it would be fruitless to take it to the final step,” she testified.
But when Pennington questioned the expert witness, he pointed out that Webb didn’t receive any samples from the rear driver’s-side door panel. That’s near where the killer had stood.
That raises a question, Pennington indicated, about whether the evidence could have proven the presence of someone else at the crime scene — someone other than Deleston.
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.
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