If it were not for the one witness who implicated Tyrel Collins in a 2011 execution-style killing of a feared felon on Charleston's East Side, a judge said he would have acquitted the 26-year-old before a jury had a chance to deliberate.
The man had taken the stand early in Collins' four-day murder trial, even after authorities said his mother's downtown home was riddled with bullets Sunday night. That shooting, the police said, was an attempt by Collins' brother to dissuade the man from testifying.
After 9th Circuit Judge Roger Young on Wednesday denied a request by Collins' attorney for a directed verdict of not guilty, it was up to the jury to decide whether to believe the witness.
But after 10 hours of deliberations Wednesday and Thursday, the man's words were enough to convince the jury of his guilt. He was convicted of using a firearm to murder 24-year-old Solomon Chisolm.
"It's a huge victory for the East Side community," Assistant Solicitor Stephanie Linder said. "We're very happy that ... a person was brave enough to testify."
Already in the same jail as his brother, 25-year-old Adrian Collins, who faces a charge of intimidating the witness, Tyrel Collins was sentenced to remain behind bars for the rest of his life, with no chance of parole. He smiled and muttered to himself after he was sentenced.
Referring to acts of "intimidation and terrorism," Young alluded to the shooting Sunday as he told Collins that he had lost his privilege to walk freely through his community again.
"This whole case seems to be about people who want to live outside the law," Young said. "One thing that we cannot tolerate in this country is living above the law."
It was the second attempt to try Collins after the first ended in a mistrial in September, when public defender Jason King said during opening statements that his client's alleged victim was a "legendary" killer.
King futilely asked the judge to declare another mistrial Thursday. He argued that The Post and Courier's coverage of the witness problems might have tainted the jurors, who denied reading the newspaper.
Known as a drug dealer, Chisolm was playing cards at Mall Playground on Oct. 27, 2011, when someone shot him five times.
Few witnesses were willing to tell the Charleston Police Department what they saw.
Ten people testified for the state, but most were police officers or forensics experts.
Only one eyewitness, the victim's half brother, named Collins in the slaying.
But King said Raymond Renard Clement, 32, had changed his story one too many times.
"What comes from that witness stand is important," King argued during closing arguments. "If the only thing that comes out of that witness stand are lies, that's not what you convict someone with."
Adding to the hurdles for prosecutors Linder and Greg Voigt, two other men had opted to take a 90-day jail term for contempt of court rather than testify. They were sentenced without the jury in the courtroom.
That set the state's case squarely on Clement's shoulders.
Police officers had found him screaming above Chisolm's dead body.
But when detectives interviewed Clement that night, he told them that he had stepped away from the card game with Chisolm when the shots were fired. He saw the gunman with a black T-shirt pulled up to his eyes, but he couldn't tell who the man was.
Four days later, after authorities offered to look into federal witness protection for him, Clement adjusted his version of the events.
He told detectives that he was gambling with Chisolm when his half brother was shot. Before Clement could escape, the gunman fired at him, he added, and a bullet grazed his leg.
Before leaving, Clement said, the killer pulled down the T-shirt to reveal his face; it was Collins.
In defense, King used two witnesses who were at the park but denied seeing who shot Chisolm. They said, though, that they hadn't seen Collins there either and that Clement had bowed out of the card game before the gunfire resounded.
No physical evidence tied Collins to the crime. The murder weapon was never found.
Investigators did come across some circumstantial evidence.
At a house where Collins' family members lived, the police found a black T-shirt that matched descriptions of the shooter's clothes. It tested positive for the particles that make up gunshot residue, the bits of lead and other chemical elements that a firearm spews when a round is discharged.
But experts couldn't say for sure that the particles were from a gun because not enough of them were found.
Even without much evidence and despite Chisolm's checkered past, which was not mentioned during the trial, Linder said prosecutors took the case seriously.
"We hope this sends a message," she said, "that the Solicitor's Office cares about everybody."
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.
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