A judge on Monday took a 2018 Hibbing homicide case under advisement, saying she would render a verdict without receiving a closing argument from the defense.
Judge Rachel Sullivan denied requests from Jerome Dionte Spann's defense attorneys to extend a deadline for filing a written closing argument, officially closing the trial record with only a prosecution brief to be considered.
Sullivan will now have seven days to render a verdict for Spann, 32, who faces mandatory life imprisonment without parole if convicted of premeditated first-degree murder in the Christmas Day killing of 34-year-old Jeryel Octavious McBeth.
Prosecutor: Victim pursued after Christmas Eve confrontation
St. Louis County prosecutor Jessica Fralich argued in a recent submission that Spann arrived in an SUV outside 2408 Third Ave. E. on the evening of Dec. 25, 2018, walking up to a group and asking, "What up now, Jason?" as he pulled out a gun and fired five shots.
McBeth, who reportedly went by "Jason," was hit with three shots, two of which perforated his lungs and another that went through his forearm, according to trial testimony. Two other men, Jamien and Timothy Stuckey, also were said to have been struck or grazed by bullets.
Fralich noted that McBeth's girlfriend, April Lewandowski, told a 911 dispatcher that a "Jerome" had just shot her boyfriend, and that Usavious Stuckey immediately told police he saw Spann, who he knew, holding and firing the gun.
Additionally, she said two cooperating co-defendants, Jenna Wersal and Kyshaun Klasko, testified to being in the SUV with Spann, with Klasko following him out and foot and observing him fire five shots into the crowd before running back to the car.
In seeking to prove premeditation, the prosecutor noted police had been called to Spann's residence Dec. 24, after McBeth reportedly arrived and was threatening to assault him. Spann, she said, armed himself with a revolver on Christmas Day and "was out looking" for McBeth, allegedly pursuing a car he believed the victim to be in.
"He wanted to settle the score for what happened the night before and he thought McBeth was scared of that encounter," Fralich said. "Jerome Spann was carrying a concealed firearm as he looked for McBeth. When he finally saw McBeth he ordered Wersal to stop the car so he could walk back to within three or four feet of McBeth before shooting him three times."
Fralich further alleged that Spann ordered witnesses to remain silent and tried to avoid known locations, fleeing to St. Paul, where he was arrested Dec. 28.
Defense attorneys had previously disclosed a possible alibi defense, asserting that Spann was gathered with family at a St. Paul cemetery around the time of the shooting.
And while Sullivan won't have a formal brief articulating Spann's position, the defense technically does not need to make any argument in a criminal trial, as it is the state's burden to prove all elements of the alleged offenses beyond a reasonable doubt.
Defense brief denied after squabble with judge
Spann earlier this year waived his right to a jury trial, allowing Sullivan to serve as the lone fact-finder in his case, which also includes counts of intentional second-degree murder and second-degree assault. The judge heard three days of testimony starting Aug. 23.
The parties agreed to submit closing arguments in writing and Sullivan set a schedule: first the prosecution Sept. 1, then the defense Sept. 8, followed by prosecution rebuttal Sept. 13.
While the state met its deadline, public defender Elizabeth Polling submitted a request Sept. 7 to have five additional days, saying only that "counsel requires additional time to prepare the argument."
Sullivan then scheduled a hearing for Sept. 8, which Polling said she could not attend due to other scheduled hearings. But fellow defense attorney Hannah Forti appeared and told the court that the briefing schedule was "totally unanticipated" — a claim that Sullivan rejected.
"The court previously advised the parties, far in advance of trial, of the court's intention to set a limited briefing schedule at the close of evidence," the judge wrote, referencing a June 1 conversation.
Sullivan granted defense attorneys a brief extension to the morning of Sept. 9, which Polling defied by submitting a written notice that she would file a closing argument on or before Sept. 17 — an additional four days beyond her initial request.
"It remains my opinion that the deadline established by the court is not adequate to provide proper and necessary preparation of the defendant’s closing argument consistent with the Rules of Professional Responsibility and the 6th Amendment," Polling said.
"My opinion is based on the evidence in the case and my assessment of the time required to properly analyze and argue the facts presented, performance and management of other constitutionally required duties, and the constraints of finite beings in the physical universe."
Sullivan, noting the defense attorney's "contravention" of her order, refused to budge. The judge maintained that the deadline was reasonable, writing that Spann has been in custody for nearly three years and that his attorneys had two weeks to prepare an argument after a trial that took less than 14 hours.
"Defense counsel has failed to submit a written closing argument by the deadline approved by the court and, as a result, the court concludes that the record is closed/complete and now under advisement," Sullivan said in Monday's five-page order.
Defense attorneys have previously sparred with Sullivan, unsuccessfully asking the judge to recuse herself from hearing the case due to personal and professional ties to a lead investigator. But Sullivan refused to step aside and 6th Judicial District Chief Judge Michael Cuzzo later said the request was "not reasonable" because there was no showing of "any actual bias."