Cold killing or self-defense? Jury hears conflicting accounts as Duluth murder trial opens
The entire case comes down to 30 seconds not captured on video, a defense attorney said.
Jamal Tyshawn Jackson fatally shot Scott Allen Pennington on a crowded street outside a downtown Duluth bar on Labor Day weekend last year.
That fact is not disputed. But how it happened is the subject of a murder trial, which saw opening statements and testimony from seven witnesses Tuesday.
"There is no discernible connection between the defendant and the decedent," St. Louis County prosecutor Jon Holets told a jury. "No motive is known to investigators in the case. There is no murder weapon in evidence. Yet none of that changes the fact that the defendant murdered Scott Pennington."
Defense attorney Laura Zimm acknowledged her 27-year-old client shot Pennington, but contended he did so in self-defense. Crucially, while most of the two men's movements that night were captured on surveillance video, the shooting itself happened just out of view of cameras.
"This is one of the most unique cases you will see," Zimm said. "Mr. Jackson agrees with 90% of what the state has explained to you. He agrees with the vast, vast majority of the evidence in this case. What he disagrees with is those 30 seconds not on video."
Pennington, 31, was shot across the street from Aces on First, 113 W. First St., just before 1 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018. While the area was bustling on a pleasant holiday weekend, Holets said few people actually saw the shooting.
"There was nothing out of the ordinary to see," the prosecutor said. "No violence, no arguing, no fighting. Nothing to draw their attention."
Holets meticulously moved through a slideshow of surveillance images documenting the activities of Pennington and Jackson. Both were inside Aces but had no interaction until they met outside on the street, where a tree obscured the view of a nearby city surveillance camera as the shooting occurred.
"The defendant crossed the street and coldly and consciously made a decision to kill Scott Pennington, absent any threat of danger to himself," Holets told the jury. "There is absolutely no justification."
Zimm, much briefer in her opening statement, promised Jackson would take the stand to publicly tell the full story for the first time.
"He felt overwhelming fear for his life in those 30 seconds," she said. "He will explain to you why, and explain to you why he needed to do what he did."
The defense attorney added: "Pay particular attention to the details of those 30 seconds. We agree with everything else."
Pennington spent his final hours attending a backyard wedding in Hermantown and grabbing a few drinks with his new girlfriend, Christina Minotte. She testified that Pennington had stepped out of the bar to have a cigarette. A few minutes later she heard what sounded like a bottle smashing. With Pennington failing to return, she stepped outside to investigate, finding him on the ground.
"I was on my knees, talking to him, telling him everything was going to be OK," Minotte recalled through tears. "There was blood everywhere and I could tell he was having a difficult time breathing."
Minotte said that night was the first time she and Pennington had stepped out in public, celebrating their new relationship with mutual friends.
"It went from the best night of my life — super excited to have a future with this man — to ending in tragedy," she testified.
Other witnesses on scene described hearing the gunshot and realizing what had happened. None could recall any fight or verbal altercation leading up to the incident, describing a generally jovial mood on a crowded evening at the bar.
Laura Truax testified that she was outside, heading back into Aces, when she heard the gunshot and saw Pennington fall out of the corner of her eye. Truax, a registered nurse, said she found Pennington "bleeding profusely" from a head wound and began chest compressions until paramedics arrived.
Her friend, Tiffany Anderson, had a similar account.
"I heard a loud pop and looked over and saw him fall," she testified. "That's all I can really say."
Two Uber drivers parked on the street said they did not hear any argument or see any firearm prior to hearing the gunshot.
"I saw Jamal bring his arm down and put his gun away," Tiffany Johnson testified. She added that Jackson proceeded "at a normal walking pace" west on First Street, turning back at one point to see if anyone was following.
Holets told the jury Jackson passed both a Duluth police car and a state trooper as he left the scene, making no attempt to summon help. The prosecutor said he spent about an hour at Gichi-ode' Akiing — then still known as Lake Place Park — before emerging, having turned his pants inside out and shedding a long-sleeved shirt.
At some point over the next day, Jackson also traveled to Minneapolis, where he turned himself in on an unrelated warrant in a Duluth drunken-driving case, the prosecutor noted.
"After the defendant makes a conscious effort to take Scott Pennington's life, he makes another series of decisions that are reflective of his state of mind," Holets told the jury.
Dick Pennington, the victim's father, was the first witness to take the stand. He said his son was a hard worker, employed as a salesman for a medical equipment company and always helping out his parents around the house. An avid Minnesota Vikings fan, he was always active in sports including soccer, baseball, basketball and golf.
The father recalled playing a spontaneous game of hoops with his son shortly before his death — something they hadn't done in years.
"We played horse and talked," he said. "Talked about nothing — just having a ball. It's something I'll never forget. You don't usually get a chance to do that and have it mean so much."
Sixth Judicial District Judge Theresa Neo is presiding over the trial, which could continue through the end of next week. A jury seated Monday consists of seven women and seven men, including two alternates.