Trial: Defense blasts discrepancies in child witnesses' testimony

Defense attorneys for Javon Rice and Malcolm White hammered the prosecution’s case Monday in the fatal 2013 shooting of Bennie “Frank” Pulley, telling jurors witnesses’ accounts of what happened varied too much to be believed.

The witnesses were children who’d been playing basketball in the street outside Pulley’s 34 Lanier Drive home when the sound of gunfire drew their attention to his house.

Some of the kids said they recognized Rice and White as the men who fled Pulley’s place after the shooting, because the two men had visited Pulley earlier that day to buy marijuana, and the children got a good look at them then.

But discrepancies in their descriptions of what the men were wearing and what they did as they ran away gave defense attorneys opportunities to pick away at the state’s case.

“They put up a lot of evidence, but not a lot of proof,” White’s attorney Ed Cannington said of prosecutors in his closing argument.

Rice’s attorney Stacey Jackson said the witnesses so contradicted each other that they cast doubt on each other’s accounts: “These are the state’s own witnesses discrediting each other,” he said.

The prosecution’s case was based on allegations Pulley, 33, regularly dealt marijuana and other drugs in the front room of his modest home, and Rice and White were among his regular customers, usually visiting him on Sundays.

On the afternoon of Sunday, Jan. 27, 2013, White and Rice dropped by Pulley’s home, and as they left they stopped to greet the kids playing basketball by “dapping them up,” or touching knuckles with their fists. The defense did not deny this, acknowledging the two had been to Pulley’s house.

Prosecutors said the two returned later to rob Pulley of a black kit bag in which he was known to keep his cash and drugs. Pulley, whose fiancé said kept a handgun hidden behind a cushion on his loveseat, apparently tried to stop them, pulling a .40-caliber pistol.

He was gunned down, shot five times with a .380-caliber pistol, and died face-down on the floor with his head toward his front door. His gun, unfired, lay beside his right hand.

Four of the bullets hit him in the back, one in his right side.

Two of the witnesses said they heard three shots, looked toward Pulley’s house and saw Rice shooting through the front, screen door as White held it open.

But police said all the .380-caliber shell casings were inside the house on the floor behind Pulley’s body. A firearms expert testified the pistol would have ejected those casings over the shooter’s shoulder, so Jackson told jurors whoever killed Pulley most likely was inside the house, and shot Pulley in the back as Pulley turned toward the door.

The attorney noted also that some of the witnesses initially told investigators they couldn’t describe the two men they saw flee Pulley’s house, then later said they were certain the two were White and Rice.

Among the discrepancies in their descriptions of what the men were wearing was a pair of red shoes worn by the taller man, whom some identified as Rice. They said the shoes were a style endorsed by athlete Ken Griffey Jr., but the shoes police seized while searching Rice’s home were instead promoted by Deion Sanders, Jackson said.

Jackson also stressed that prosecutors Chris Williams and George Lipscomb had no physical evidence tying White or Rice to the crime scene — no DNA, no fingerprints, none of Pulley’s blood on their clothes. The gun used to kill Pulley was never found, though two witnesses said they saw the men throw it away. So the case was based almost entirely on the witnesses’ identifying the defendants, particularly the hairstyle Rice had at the time: Dreadlocks dyed orange or blond at their tips.

Jackson noted that hairstyle is popular among black youth, so it’s not unique. He also pointed out that because Pulley had multiple customers, many people knew he had drugs and money, and would have been motivated to rob him.

The robbery was incomplete: Though Pulley’s black kit bag was taken, about $1,000 in cash plus marijuana and other drugs still were in other rooms of his home, Jackson told jurors.

Williams in his closing argument called the children’s varying accounts “minor discrepancies” insufficient to create a reasonable doubt about the defendants’ guilt. Otherwise the witnesses’ testimony was consistent enough to be trusted, he said.

As for where police found the shell casings, those easily could have been kicked around as neighbors rushed to Pulley’s aid, he said.

Lipscomb emphasized that the children got a close look at the suspects the first time they came to Pulley’s house and spoke to the kids as they left. Rice and White made little effort to disguise themselves for the robbery, only changing clothes to don black “hoodies,” or hooded sweatshirts, he said, so the children who saw them the first time had no trouble recognizing them the second time.

“It’s almost as if they wanted to be caught,” Lipscomb said.

Closing arguments took most of the day Monday, so Superior Court Judge Frank Jordan Jr. told jurors to return this morning to begin deliberations.

Rice and White, both 20, are charged with murder, armed robbery and using a firearm to commit a crime.