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Was the wrong man convicted in 1994 murder case?

Sunday, September 21, 2003

By Bill Moushey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It was the spring of 1994, and 18-year-old Terrell Johnson was plying his trade in Pittsburgh's Hazelwood neighborhood.

Johnson called himself a "lone wolf" drug dealer, selling crack cocaine in the heart of territory controlled by the violent Hazelwood Mob street gang.

Terrell Johnson comes off the elevator to attend a coroner's inquest in 1995. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

Related graphic: Eyewitness Inconsistencies

Johnson says he was never part of the gang. Police say he couldn't have done his work so openly unless he was either a gang member or sanctioned by the mob, which, at that point, was implicated in up to 10 unsolved murders.

On this day, Johnson suddenly spied a young crack addict he knew, 20-year-old Verna Robinson, standing on some crumbling city steps. She owed him about $100 from a previous drug buy.

In a few seconds, Verna Robinson would be battered and bruised. She would say that Johnson beat her up over the money she owed. He and another man would say that she tried to run away, and fell down the steps. In either case, she filed assault charges against Johnson.

It was a fateful moment.

In a few weeks, Verna Robinson would be dead, gunned down on a Hazelwood street.

And Terrell Johnson's life would change forever.

The victim's story

Like many young black women in Hazelwood, Verna Robinson grew up fast.

Much of the neighborhood had been gripped by poverty and drug addiction after the Mon River steel mills shut down, and in the year before her death, Robinson herself had hit rock bottom because of her crack addiction.

Raised by a single mother after her father disappeared, she watched as one of her brothers was sent to prison for 20 years on a robbery conviction. Another brother, Eugene "Butchie" Robinson, died after being shot 14 times in 1992.

Police charged a notorious Hazelwood Mob gang member, Harold Cabbagestalk, with that killing.

But prosecutors later dismissed the charges against Cabbagestalk after an eyewitness changed her story and refused to testify. It was the second time prosecutors had to drop a murder case against Cabbagestalk because a key witness had backed out.

In the spring of 1994, Robinson made a last effort to get clean, and for about two months, said her mother, Barbara Robinson, she was successful at staying off crack.

It was during that tumultuous time that Verna Robinson made a dangerous decision.

Even though it was common knowledge that anyone who told police about the Hazelwood Mob's violence could be killed, Verna Robinson told officers that in November 1993, she had seen a drive-by shooting in which Anthony "Little Anthony" Griffin, a juvenile, was part of a crew that fired a shotgun into the face and back of Eric Godfrey, whose family was in a dispute with the gang. Somehow, Godfrey survived.

On July 21, Verna Robinson had two court dates. One was to face Terrell Johnson, the drug dealer, in a preliminary hearing over her assault charges against him. The other was in Juvenile Court, to testify against Griffin in the drive-by shooting. She had already arrived at the Allegheny County Courthouse when she found both hearings had been postponed.

Two Pittsburgh police detectives gave her a ride to her mother's Almeda Street home, handing her $20 before dropping her off in the heart of Hazelwood Mob turf.

About this story

This story was prepared in conjunction with the Innocence Institute of Western Pennsylvania.

The institute is an investigative reporting organization that probes allegations of wrongful convictions within a 100-mile radius of Pittsburgh. It is a partnership between the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication of Point Park College and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Post-Gazette staff writer Bill Moushey, the author of this series, is director of the institute and an assistant professor at Point Park. The institute's goals are to provide a unique, real-world learning environment for aspiring journalists, who learn investigative reporting skills while analyzing and writing about claims of prosecutorial misconduct or innocence of those accused of crimes.

Over the past two years, students at Point Park College examined court records, interviewed witnesses and examined the crime scene to piece together the Johnson story before their graduations. They are Point Park graduate students Fran Aiello, Bernie Bowes and Melanie Canavan, and Point Park undergraduate students Kristin Cox, Katie Lockward, April Lawson, Amy Pastorak and Danielle Smith.

Moushey can be reached at Mail can be sent to the program at: The Innocence Institute of Western Pennsylvania, Point Park College, 305 Academic Hall, Point Park College, 201 Wood St., Pittsburgh 15222-1984. He can be reached at 412-765-3164.

Bill Moushey also can be reached at or 412-263-1887.


Her mother, Barbara Robinson, was angry when police brought Verna to her house.

She was supposed to be under police protection. Officers would later say that Verna Robinson refused their help. But her mother said that what actually happened was that police located an apartment in East Liberty for Verna to use while she was serving as a court witness, but, "They came to me and said, 'Its going to cost $1,500 a month to take care of your daughter' " for rent, utilities and expenses.

Barbara didn't have that money, and so Verna stayed with her.

"I heard a ... BANG!'

On the night of July 21, many Hazelwood residents were outside until past midnight, sitting, talking, drinking and watching their children play.

Verna Robinson was there, too, drinking beer from a Styrofoam cup. She had bought a 16-ounce can of Stroh's with some of the money the cops had given her.

As the night wore on, she walked up and down Almeda Street, listening to gospel music on a Walkman.

Shortly after 1 a.m., Barbara Robinson, who was upstairs closing a bedroom window, heard a shot.

"BANG! Oh my God! Before I could get to the door, I heard another shot," she said. "Somebody was banging on my door, 'Miss Barb, Verna's in the street, she's done been shot.' I came back through the house and went out the front and saw her lying there."

Her daughter was dead.

The faint sounds of gospel music from Verna's headset wafted through the air.

"I couldn't say nothing. I just picked up her hand ... the music was playing, then I went back into the house," Barbara Robinson said.

Shortly after the killing, a local resident described the assailants to police.

One, she said, was a man who looked like Harold Cabbagestalk. Another was Dorian Moorefield, another gang member. The third, she said, was a youth between 13 and 14 years old.

Despite that description, one other man -- Terrell Johnson -- became a suspect, mainly because Verna Robinson had filed assault charges against him.

Johnson found out he was a suspect by reading the newspaper. He went to police and said he had witnesses to prove he was in a house several blocks away at the time of the killing. Police released him, but told him not to leave town.

Johnson thought he had nothing to worry about. But soon, another woman would enter the case, and she would prove to be his undoing.

Dolly McBryde's story

Two and a half weeks after the shooting, Evelyn "Dolly" McBryde was caught shoplifting at Century III mall.

It wasn't the first time she had been arrested.

McBryde, 30, was another crack addict from Hazelwood. She already had several outstanding warrants for various theft cases and for failing to appear in court. She also faced more than 30 probation violations. Taken together, these charges would have allowed a judge to imprison her for up to 50 years.

After her arrest, McBryde told mall police she had information about Verna Robinson's murder. She wanted a deal.

Pittsburgh police detectives met with her shortly after her arrival at the Allegheny County Jail. The police say they talked with her, but because she was under the influence of drugs, they took only a four-paragraph statement before she was sent to the first of two drug rehabilitation programs.

On Dec. 27, more than five months after the killing, McBryde gave police her first full account of the murder.

On the evening before the killing, McBryde said, she was hanging around the now-closed Mr. Z's bar at Almeda Street and Second Avenue, just down the hill from the murder scene.

She said she agreed to meet a man named Tony Wright in a nearby second-floor apartment to drink and take drugs. She described the apartment, just three doors down a hill from the murder scene, as a sparsely furnished drug den. When she got there, she said, Wright was on a couch, nodding in and out of consciousness from an injection of heroin.

McBryde said she then saw Verna Robinson come out of the bathroom. The two women exchanged small talk and Robinson left. McBryde said she then looked out a window to watch her friend walk up the street, and decided to follow her.

As she exited the building, McBryde said, she heard a shot. She said she ducked down into bushes in front of a house at the corner of Almeda and Sunnyside Streets and peered around the corner of the house up Sunnyside. Twenty-five yards away, she said, three men -- Harold Cabbagestalk, Dorian Moorefield and Terrell Johnson -- surrounded a wounded but still-standing Robinson.

That's when she said Cabbagestalk yelled: "Like your brother, bitch, this is what snitches get." A second shot was fired into Robinson's head and she hit the ground, McBryde said.

McBryde said someone then yelled, "Let's roll!" and the trio fled down Almeda Street to a waiting car.

She said none of the assailants saw her.

After she watched the men escape, McBryde said, she walked three blocks to the home of Gary Moorefield, Dorian Moorefield's brother and another member of the Hazelwood Mob.

She said Gary Moorefield invited her into the house to give him a "massage." In street parlance, that means the exchange of sexual favors for drugs.

Within minutes, she said, several men arrived and summoned Gary Moorefield.

She said she did not see them, but could identify Johnson, Cabbagestalk and Dorian Moorefield by their voices. When Gary Moorefield told her to leave, she said, she went next door to acquaintance Gail Robinson's house, where they hid in the basement to avoid police canvassing the area.

It would turn out later that McBryde's story was full of holes. But that didn't become evident in time to help Terrell Johnson.

Johnson's trial

Johnson learned in February 1995 that he had been formally charged in Verna Robinson's killing. He turned himself in, not knowing he would never be free again.

Two days later, Cabbagestalk was caught by police after a foot chase in the Terrace Village housing project.

Moorefield was on the lam for about a year before he turned himself in.

Johnson said police told him at the time that they knew he wasn't the shooter. They were willing to cut a deal with him if he would lay the blame on the other two. "They told me, 'These guys don't care nothing about you; tell us what you know.' "

Johnson said, "I told them, 'How am I going to tell you something I don't know?' "

As his trial date approached, Johnson became increasingly alarmed.

The investigator hired by James DePasquale, his court-appointed attorney, did not thoroughly canvass the murder scene and never submitted a report on his work to DePasquale, who says he tried to do the work himself at the last minute.

The lack of a complete on-the-scene report would turn out to be devastating in Johnson's trial.

But DePasquale said that rather than ask for a continuance, as he should have, he let Johnson's trial proceed because he didn't want his client to be tried with Cabbagestalk and Moorefield, fearing their gang reputations would hurt Johnson's chances with a jury.

Johnson's trial began in June 1995, with Dolly McBryde as the key witness.

Prosecutors asked her right away about her criminal past.

Yes, McBryde said, she had piled up charges of retail theft, receiving stolen property and passing bad checks in Pittsburgh, Johnstown and Virginia during a three-year stretch of using crack cocaine.

She also acknowledged there were charges pending against her that a man had paid her to let him watch children perform sex acts on each other, and that she had used the children to shoplift from a Robinson Towne Center store.

McBryde said that in exchange for her testimony in the murder case, prosecutors dismissed some theft charges, enrolled her in drug rehabilitation programs and gave her money for living expenses. In all, records later showed, the Allegheny County district attorney's office paid out almost $10,000 for rehab, housing, food and clothing before she testified against Johnson.

When it was time for DePasquale to cross-examine her, he managed to find two holes in McBryde's testimony.

She repeated her story about going to an apartment to meet a man named Tony Wright and use drugs with him. But she couldn't identify Wright from among a group of people sitting in the courtroom.

She also testified that she heard a first shot, then moved to a spot where she saw the men kill Robinson with a second shot while Robinson was still standing. But DePasquale was able to show that a forensic pathologist said either of the shots would have caused Robinson to fall to the ground immediately.

But DePasquale was not able to question other parts of McBryde's story, particularly her description of where she was in the minutes leading up to the shooting, a description that other lawyers would eventually tear to shreds.

He also decided against putting on the stand the two people who said they were with Johnson the night of the killing.

Ruth Roach and her companion, Stanley West, have signed affidavits saying that he helped them baby-sit six young children on the night of the killing. They said Johnson then went to a third story bedroom about 11 p.m., two hours before the killing, and didn't leave until the next morning.

DePasquale said he did not call West to the stand because he had a criminal record. And at the last minute, DePasquale said, he decided not to use Roach, who was waiting in court to testify, because she was 8 1/2 months pregnant and scared by death threats she had received from the Hazelwood Mob.

DePasquale and Johnson suffered one other major reversal in the trial.

The young woman who initially told police she saw the three men who killed Robinson, and who said the third man looked nothing like Johnson, would not repeat that story on the stand. She told DePasquale that Hazelwood Mob members had threatened to kill her if she repeated her statements in court.

Then, to the attorney's amazement, the prosecution called her to the stand during the trial as one of its witnesses.

Wearing a wig and sunglasses, she testified about the climate of fear that the mob had created in Hazelwood as part of a prosecutorial effort to show how brave McBryde was to testify.

That gave DePasquale a chance to ask her about her statements to police. But she denied she had told police who the killers were.

With little testimony to refute McBryde's story and the other woman unwilling to repeat her original report, the jury took only a few hours to convict Johnson.

He was sentenced to life in prison.

The other trials

The outcome was much different in the trial of Harold Cabbagestalk, who was accused as the trigger man in the killing.

By doing a better investigation of McBryde's story, defense attorney John Elash was able to point out several flaws in it.

He focused on two parts of her tale:

* McBryde said she first encountered Verna Robinson the night of July 21 at the apartment of Dinah Brown. She described Brown's apartment as a sparsely furnished drug den, but Brown produced photos that showed a well-furnished apartment. Brown testified that she knew Dolly McBryde, and that McBryde had never been to her place. Finally, Brown said McBryde would not have been able to look out her windows to watch Verna Robinson walk up the street because potted plants that had been there for a long time would have blocked her view.

* McBryde had first told police that when she heard the first shot she ducked behind bushes next to a house at Almeda and Sunnyside streets. But she could not have seen the shooting from that spot. She then testified in court that she moved to the side of the house, still behind the hedges, where she saw the shooting. But Elash pressed McBryde on how she could have been standing in the second spot. To get there, she would have had to open a locked gate, he said. Under his questioning, she answered: "The gate wasn't there. Or if it was there, it wasn't closed." Elash got the owner of the home to testify the gate had been locked for a decade.

Elash also found out that McBryde not only had been convicted of several drug-related crimes under her real name, but also had a criminal history under several other names, birth dates and Social Security numbers, and got her to admit that in court.

After Elash's vigorous defense, Cabbagestalk was acquitted of the murder.

The jury did end up convicting him instead of conspiracy and he was sentenced to a five- to 10-year prison term. He will complete the full sentence next year.

In the later trial of Dorian Moorefield, defense attorney William Difenderfer also attacked McBryde's credibility. In addition to the information Elash had used, Difenderfer got her to admit she had suffered from poor eyesight her whole life and was wearing only one contact lens the night of the killing.

Difenderfer also produced an airline ticket showing that Gary Moorefield, Dorian Moorefield's brother and the man to whom McBryde said she gave sexual favors immediately after the shooting, was in Atlanta that night.

Dorian Moorefield was acquitted in two hours.

Since the time of those trials, one other critical piece of evidence has surfaced.

McBryde had said her final stop in the early morning hours after the killing was the apartment of friend Gail Robinson, who is not related to the murder victim. That is where she said she hid from police as they canvassed the neighborhood.

Gail Robinson told reporters she was with McBryde -- but not just for a few hours after the shooting.

In fact, Gail Robinson said, they were together all evening, prostituting themselves with various men to earn money to buy drugs. McBryde never left her house, Robinson said.

'I want my life back'

DePasquale testified in a post-conviction hearing that he did a poor job of defending Johnson.

The trial judge, Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Lawrence O'Toole, agreed, and ruled in 1998 that Johnson should get a new trial.

But in a 2-1 vote, a panel of Superior Court appeals judges reversed O'Toole's new trial order.

Despite DePasquale's admissions, they did not believe his performance merited a new trial. In a dissent, Superior Court Judge John Musmanno said there was no reasonable basis for DePasquale's failure to call five witnesses whom Johnson had identified, and he noted DePasquale had admitted his errors.

Nevertheless, the state Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of the ruling, and Johnson's first appeal in federal court has been rejected.

Johnson, now 28, is confined in the State Correctional Institution at Greene. He thinks his chances of success with further appeals are slim.

The district attorney's office, citing Johnson's continuing appeal of the case, declined to comment.

DePasquale said he was shocked that a new trial wasn't granted, and Elash agreed. "In my 29 years as a lawyer, Dolly McBryde was, if not the most incredible witness I ever heard ... in the pantheon of incredible witnesses. Terrell Johnson is a total victim in this case."

In the meantime, Dolly McBryde still lives in the Pittsburgh region, and since Johnson's conviction, she has committed nine crimes, including stealing her father's Social Security check on Christmas Day.

During the trials, prosecutor Kim Berkeley Clark, now an Allegheny County Common Pleas judge, had told defense lawyers that once McBryde's testimony was finished, the district attorney's office would make no further deals with her.

In fact, though, prosecutors later dropped charges McBryde faced for prostituting children. They also accepted plea bargains from her on other charges, helping her avoid up to 50 years in prison sentences.

After being contacted by reporters, McBryde promised she would talk about her testimony in the Johnson case. But later, saying that "time is money," she implied she would grant an interview only if she were paid.

While she did not recant her testimony against Johnson, she didn't exactly stick by it. "He's not the one I wanted," she said. "If he'd had the money or the power like the other two, he'd have gotten off, too. He didn't know what he was getting into. He just got caught up."

Barbara Robinson, the victim's mother, said Johnson sent her a letter two years ago saying he had nothing to do with her daughter's death, but she still isn't convinced.

Terrell Johnson said he felt sick when he heard that Cabbagestalk and Moorefield had been acquitted of the killing.

"You're happy that individuals didn't have to go to jail" for life. "But at the same time, they were telling me I'm here forever for something I didn't do," he said.

"I'm not a perfect citizen. I was who I was, but look at Evelyn McBryde.

"This lady took a deal to save her own life. ...

"I just want my life back ... another chance at life."

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