COLUMBIA — The trial of Tony Lewis, one of the eight defendants charged with murder in the October 2010 robbery and shooting of Aaron Hobson, is on track to begin Jan. 30 after forensic tests found no usable DNA on a gun discovered near the scene of the crime months after the shooting.
In April, a nurse discovered the gun buried in mulch outside Providence Urgent Care about 300 feet away from the crime scene. The lack of DNA on the .22-caliber pistol alleviated concern by Circuit Court Judge Gary Oxenhandler that the trial might have to be postponed to allow further analysis of the weapon.
Lewis is charged with second-degree murder and second-degree robbery in connection with Hobson’s murder. Hobson was robbed, beaten and fatally shot in the parking lot of the Break Time convenience store at 110 E. Nifong Blvd. on Oct. 23, 2010.
Lewis’s defense team, led by attorney Jennifer Bukowsky, and the prosecution, led by Boone County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Knight, agreed during a pretrial hearing Thursday morning that the pistol, which was not the same caliber as the 9mm weapon used to shoot Hobson, had no value in terms of DNA evidence.
One of Lewis’s co-defendants, Daron Peal, was identified by witnesses as the person who fired the shot that killed Hobson and he later pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and armed criminal action. He was sentenced to 45 years in prison.
But the defense appears to be building a case that casts doubt on the assertion that Hobson was robbed and will try to persuade the jury that the victim actually died in a gunfight that began at the Peachtree Catering & Banquet Center and then continued in the parking lot of the Break Time. Lewis is charged with second-degree murder for his involvement in robbing Hobson.
Five of the other co-defendants have either pleaded guilty or been convicted of crimes in connection with Hobson’s murder. Daron Peal’s brother, Darris Peal, is the only defendant who has gone to trial so far. Darris Peal was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
A third gun, a revolver containing nine live rounds, was found in a Peachtree Center lot where Lewis parked his car on the night of Hobson’s murder. That lot is near the Break Time where the murder occurred. In the hearing, the prosecution asserted that Lewis ran from the scene of the Hobson shooting with that gun and discarded it in the lot.
In court Thursday, the prosecution and defense argued about whether DNA evidence from that gun should be admissible at trial. There's a chance the DNA could match Lewis, but it also could match one of any six people in the black population and one of any nine white people, Bukowsky said, and Oxenhandler agreed.
The judge decided the evidence was admissible at trial but that its lack of statistical value could be established under cross examination.
At Bukowsky's request, Oxenhandler also ordered the state to seek records on all three guns to determine who originally bought them and to provide the results to the defense.
Also at issue is whether tattoos on Lewis's hands could be entered as evidence during the trial. Lewis has "money" tattooed on his right hand and "hungry" tattooed on the left. Both words are surrounded by dollar signs.
“The tattoos go to motive,” assistant prosecutor Robert Johnson argued.
But Bukowsky said 4-year-old tattoos couldn’t possibly account for the defendant’s state of mind on the night Hobson was killed.
“Risk for prejudice to my client is extremely high,” Bukowsky said. “It would only inflame the jury.”
Oxenhandler said he would take the matter under advisement.
Oxenhandler discussed the schedule and timing of Lewis’s trial, warning the defense and prosecution to try to stick to the timetable they created.
He then warned Knight to limit the theories he presents at trial.
“I’m pretty sure I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about this, thinking about which way we’re gonna go,” Knight said.
In response, Oxenhandler said: "The case is complicated enough without the multifaceted approach the state is currently taking."
Jury selection is scheduled to begin Jan. 30 and opening statements the next day.