Women were weeping, frightened children were screaming and Bennie Pulley Jr. was dying on the floor of his 34 Lanier Drive home in Columbus’ Benning Hills neighborhood.
He was shot five times by two men children playing basketball in the street outside saw run from the house. The children, who knew Pulley as the neighbor they called “Frank,” were the first to go inside after the shooting, and see Pulley face down on the floor in pooling blood.
Three of the kids were siblings, two sisters and a brother, one of whom ran to get her father, Michael Carter, who with his wife ran to Pulley’s house and called 911.
Following his children to the witness stand Tuesday in Muscogee Superior Court, Carter was the last to testify on the first day of testimony in the murder trial of Javon Rice and Malcolm White, who are accused of gunning Pulley down Jan. 27, 2013, as they robbed him of money and drugs.
Police said Pulley, 33, sold the two marijuana earlier that day before they returned to rob him that afternoon. The children testified they saw the two make both visits, and the second time saw the taller of the two firing a handgun into Pulley’s home as the shorter one held the door open for the other.
On the witness stand, Carter described his shock when one of his two daughters ran home and said, “Frank’s been shot!” Carter, who’d been watching TV, had heard no gunfire.
“I couldn’t believe it, because my kids were out there playing ball, and I couldn’t hear it,” he said.
He rushed to Pulley’s home. “I saw Frank lying on the floor gasping for air,” he said. Carter’s wife held the dying man in her arms and told him, “Hang on.”
Prosecutors played a recording of Carter’s 911 call, which captured the cacophony in the background: “He’s not breathing!” a woman could be heard shouting. “Frank! Frank!”
Recalled Carter: “He was trying to talk, but he couldn’t. His mouth was full of blood. Basically he was choking on his own blood.”
One girl, now 13, testified that before the shooting, she and other children were playing basketball across the street from Pulley’s home, just 20 to 35 feet away. The first time the two men visited Pulley, they stayed only about five minutes before coming back out, she said.
On their second trip, they banged hard on Pulley’s front door, and remained inside 15 or 20 minutes after he let them in. Then she heard three shots, and saw the men outside, one firing through the open door. The two then ran toward Collins Drive, she said.
The taller man had the handgun, and the shorter one had a black bag she recognized, because she knew it to be where Pulley kept his money, cigarettes and marijuana, she said.
Another girl, also 13, recalled rushing into Pulley’s house after the gunfire, and finding him still alive, struggling to speak. “It sounded like blood coming out of his mouth,” she said.
Asked how that made her feel, she answered: “Like I didn’t want to be in Columbus anymore.”
A boy, 10, testified that he knew the two men earlier had bought marijuana from Pulley, because they showed it off to the kids playing basketball.
He said Pulley, who often paid him to mow grass, was popular, often buying the kids pizza.
Each of the children in court identified White and Rice as the two men they saw at Pulley’s house, but defense attorneys noted discrepancies in their accounts and descriptions of Pulley’s killers, and pointed out that police didn’t provide photo lineups for the witnesses to pick the suspect’s pictures from until March 20, 2013, three months later.
In the intervening weeks, the children had time to talk to each other about what they’d seen, and pick up neighborhood gossip that could have altered their recollections, the attorneys said.
Also prosecutors lack any physical evidence tying the suspects to the crime scene — no fingerprints, no DNA results, and no weapon to ballistics test-to match with shell casings found in the house, defense attorneys said, noting also that police found those casings inside the house, not out on the porch where the children said they saw one of the two men firing through the open door.
Each defendant now is 20 years old. Rice was 19 and White was 18 when police arrested them more than four months after Pulley’s homicide. They are charged with murder, armed robbery and using a firearm to commit a crime.