After an hour and a half of deliberation Friday morning, a Buchanan County jury found Rodney Cunningham guilty of first-degreee robbery and second-degree murder in the 2006 beating death of Carlos Kelly, 34, of Columbia.
Judge Gene Hamilton set Cunningham’s sentencing for June 11. Cunningham, 31, faces life in prison.
Members of Kelly’s family cried when the verdict was read, and afterward, in front of the Boone County courthouse, they celebrated. Trina Freelon, one of Kelly’s counsins, said she was relieved by the verdict.
But Freelon said there was “one more to go,” referring to the retrial of Travis Midgyett, 27 — a friend of Cunningham’s who prosecutors say was an accomplice in the robbery and slaying of Kelly at his apartment on Cynthia Drive in northwest Columbia. Midgyett’s first trial ended in a mistrial, and he is scheduled for a new trial on June 26.
“This murder was about drugs and money – that’s a direct link between the defendant and the victim,” said Boone County Assistant Prosecutor, Nicole Gorovsky in her closing argument.
During the two-day trial, Gorovsky told jurors that Cunningham, Midgyett and a third man forced their way into Kelly’s apartment in the early morning of March 29 and bound him and his girlfriend Tiesha Moody, 34, with duct tape.
In her testimony, Moody said that when Kelly refused to tell the intruders where any drugs and money were hidden in the apartment, one of them struck him on the head with a landscaping timber. The blow caused massive hemorrhaging in Kelly’s brain, killing him instantly, Deputy Medical Examiner Eddie Adelstein testified.
A few days later, a SWAT team arrested Cunningham and Midgyett after an hour-and-a-half standoff on drug charges unrelated to the Kelly killing. A third man, Felson Barney, was also arrested in connection with the slaying, but charges against him were dropped last year when an eye witness recanted his statement.
On Thursday, Cunningham’s attorney, Public Defender Richard French, tried to sway the jury by showing them cellphone records that he said proved Cunningham was across town during the time of the murder. French also reiterated that there was a complete lack of trace evidence linking Cunningham or Midgyett to the crime scene.
French was unavailable for comment after the trial.
Gorovksy, who will act as co-counsel with Steven Berry for Midgyett’s retrial, said that she hopes that the jury in Midgyett’s new trial will also reach a guilty verdict.
“We feel justice has been done today,” she said.