NEWARK, NJ (AP) - The trial of a New Jersey man accused of murdering five Newark teenagers more than 30 years ago was marked by tense and emotional exchanges Tuesday, with the defendant breaking into tears at one point and an attorney assisting with his defense moving for a mistrial after a heated exchange with prosecutors.
A public defender assisting Lee Evans, who is representing himself against the murder charges, argued that the prosecution had coached a witness to introduce evidence that previously had been prohibited by State Superior Court Judge Patricia Costello, who is overseeing the case.
Costello declined to declare a mistrial but admonished the prosecution, agreeing with the defense that it wasn’t an accident that a retired Newark police detective testified about a witness statement that Costello had repeatedly warned them was inadmissible.
The public defender assisting Evans, Bukie Adetula, got into a heated exchange with Assistant Prosecutor Peter Guarino, out of earshot of the jury, until Costello intervened.
“I’m old-school enough to prefer case law to drama,” Costello said, before scolding the prosecutor but denying Adetula’s motion for a mistrial.
Earlier Tuesday, during a sidebar with the judge and lawyers for both sides, Evans could be heard audibly crying. The jury was quickly removed and the judge called a break.
Evans, of Irvington, is one of two suspects charged in the case. The other, his cousin Philander Hampton of Jersey City, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Hampton is expected to testify as the prosecution’s key witness against Evans, and could take the stand as early as Tuesday afternoon.
The teens’ disappearance had been one of New Jersey’s longest-running cold cases until a break in 2008.
Prosecutors have said that’s when Hampton told authorities that he and Evans lured the teens to an abandoned house in Newark with the promise of odd jobs, then locked them inside and set the house on fire, allegedly in retaliation for some stolen marijuana.
The case was initially classified and investigated as a missing person’s case and wasn’t connected at the time to the fire, which destroyed nearly all evidence and hampered the investigation from the outset, because the fire occurred before the five boys were reported missing, investigators said.
The bodies of Melvin Pittman, Ernest Taylor, Alvin Turner, Randy Johnson and Michael McDowell - last seen on a busy street on Aug. 20, 1978 - were never recovered.
Several of their family members were in court Tuesday.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)