Witnesses’ changing accounts prompt Charleston murder acquittal, frustrate prosecutors

Javon Isaiah Brown.

An accomplice who helped carry out a 2012 drug-related robbery that led to a fatal shooting in a notorious Charleston community and another witness changed their stories when the accused triggerman went to trial this week, frustrating police officials and prosecutors who had hope for a conviction.

Jurors instead acquitted Javon Isaiah Brown, 24, of murder and possession of a firearm during a violent crime after three hours of deliberations Thursday in a case that the authorities said illustrates the trouble they sometimes encounter with witnesses of street crimes.

Brown, who has a 2010 robbery conviction, remained behind bars after the four-day trial on unrelated charges.

One of his two alleged accomplices, Samuel Phillip Smiley, already was convicted in connection with the crime and sent to prison for three decades. Smiley, 23, of West Ashley agreed to testify against Brown, but when he took the stand, prosecutors said he backed off critical information and contradicted earlier statements to investigators.

Another witness who had given “compelling, credible” testimony in Smiley’s trial last fall did not relay such a good account this time around, Assistant Solicitor Lindsey Byrd said Friday.

“We have no idea what changed or why the witness became so inconsistent,” Byrd said. “We can only surmise as to why these key witnesses were not forthcoming at trial as they were when they gave statements to law enforcement.”

Brown’s attorney, Assistant Public Defender Charles Cochran, said the trial had called into question the witnesses’ credibility and presented the jurors with a potential alternate theory that one of the accomplices carried out the crime instead of his client.

Smiley was acquitted of murder in a 2008 shooting in Charleston that featured similar elements as the 2012 slaying, though the jury never knew about the older case.

“There was definitely a reasonable doubt here,” Cochran said. “There was just as much, if not more, evidence against the co-defendants.”

Cochran’s client was still being held in lieu of $3,222 bail on counts of third-degree assault and malicious injury to property for a November outburst in jail. A sheriff’s report stated that Brown threatened to punch a detention officer and pushed over a food cart because he didn’t get juice with his breakfast one morning.

Brown and the two others were accused of luring Jarvon Dowling, 24, on Aug. 20, 2012, to the Bridgeview Village apartments on North Romney Street with plans to rob the Ladson man of money gleaned from illegal drug sales. Jane Elaine Freeman, 23, of Corley Drive in North Charleston had told the others that Dowling had just made several lucrative deals, the police said.

In the early morning hours, Freeman drove Dowling to the apartment complex, where Smiley and Brown would rob him in a breezeway, investigators from the Charleston Police Department said then.

But Freeman instead left Dowling in her car and told the men where he was, according to arrest affidavits. She told the police that she later heard Brown ordering Dowling to take off his clothes before gunshots went off.

As Brown ran, he threw some cash at Freeman and said, “That’s all he had,” according to the documents.

Forensics experts found a fingerprint of Brown’s on Freeman’s car, but Freeman testified that he had been in her vehicle on past occasions, so when the print got there wasn’t certain, Cochran said.

The attorney said some witnesses recalled seeing his client at the apartment complex on the night of the slaying. Others also acknowledged giving false statements to the authorities about Brown’s involvement, Cochran added.

“They just didn’t have a whole lot putting him there, beside the word of people who were directly involved,” he said. “Nobody ever told police that they saw him with a gun and shooting anybody. That was one of the fundamental problems with the case.”

A charge of accessory before an armed robbery remains pending against Freeman. She posted $75,000 bail a day after her arrest in 2012 and has remained free.

A jury convicted Smiley in November of the same count, and Circuit Judge Roger Young sentenced him to the maximum of 30 years in prison. He has other convictions for possessing a stolen firearm and trafficking crack cocaine.

Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson commended the Charleston police and Sgt. Craig Kosarko, but their detective work that had ferreted out details from witnesses was upended at the last minute.

Responding to a request for comment, police spokesman Charles Francis said Friday that Kosarko could not “add anything to what’s already been said with regards to the frustration” brought on by this week’s development.

One witness who helped the investigators link the key players in the crime, Byrd said, became reluctant to cooperate with prosecutors when Brown’s trial neared.

“Once the witness took the stand,” Byrd said, “the witness recanted the original statement and claimed it was all a fabrication.”

Prosecutors challenged the witness with a prior statement to the police, but under court rules, Circuit Judge Alex Macaulay required jurors to disregard it during deliberations.

Rules of evidence also had prevented Byrd from trying Smiley and Brown together, she said.

“Considering these major issues that developed at trial and the fact that we had no forensic evidence to support the case, we were not surprised with the result,” Byrd said. “Disappointed, but not surprised.”

Smiley also was found not guilty of murder and armed robbery in the May 11, 2008, shooting of Jesse P. Myers, 23. The police in that case accused Smiley, who was 17 then, of hitting Myers inside a Lee Street house before making him take off his clothes and shooting him.

Dowling’s killer also had ordered him to strip before firing the fatal gunshots, the police said.

After Smiley was acquitted in the 2008 shooting, his attorney faulted the prosecution’s case because it had centered on the testimony of a single witness whose story kept changing.

Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.