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Cemetery murder trial begins

Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat — Defense lawyer Tim Cotton, at left, talks with Adrian Williams, who is on trial for the May 2011 murder of Quinton Brown. Bottom right, Natchez Police investigator Joe Belling identifies one of the guns collected as evidence in the trial. At top-right, Brown’s mother, Terracine Prater, covers her mouth to catch her breath as Belling describes the crime scene at the Natchez City Cemetery.

NATCHEZ — While prosecutors maintained that evidence gathered on the scene and statements made by the defendant are enough to convict him, the defense team for Adrian Williams maintained Wednesday that no evidence exists to prove that he didn’t act in self-defense or that he was even the shooter in the killing of 18-year-old Quinton Brown.

Williams, 22, is accused along with Keldrick Washington, 20, in the May 29, 2011, killing of Brown, 17, in the Natchez City Cemetery. Williams’ trial began Wednesday, and Judge Forrest “Al” Johnson said it is expected to end today. Washington is set to be tried separately Nov. 27.

Brown was shot five times, including in the back and in the head.

In his opening statement, Assistant District Attorney Walt Brown said Williams gave police three statements, one in which he denied involvement in the killing, but that he had seen Brown that night.

In the two other statements Williams gave, he admitted to being at the cemetery, Brown said.

“(Williams) said he went out there so that Quinton and Denzel (Fort) could fight, and he said that at some point the victim pulled a gun on Denzel, and at that point the defendant shot Quinton and then Denzel took the gun and shot Quinton,” Brown said.

Later, Williams would again change his story, saying he was the only shooter and that he threw the gun into the Mississippi River, Brown said.

When Natchez Police Lt. Craig Godbold testified, he said he did not believe Williams had thrown the guns into the river, and when Williams asked if he could have a cigarette, Godbold told him he would not be allowed to smoke until he told investigators where the guns used in the crime were.

The defendant eventually caved to the craving told Godbold where to find the guns — two .357 pistols and a .380 pistol — in an abandoned house on Claiborne Street. He was allowed to smoke, Godbold said.

The .357s belonged to Williams, the prosecutors said, while the .380 belonged to Washington.

Brown said upon testing at the state crime lab, the .357s were found to share the same class characteristics as the weapons used to fire the bullets recovered from the victim’s body.

Natchez Police Investigator Joe Belling also testified that a .380 pistol was found near Brown’s body and was believed to belong to the victim.

Several other weapons were recovered from other residences and a car connected to people attached to the investigation, but were later determined not to have been used in the killing.

Defense attorney Tim Cotton said reports say the defendant and others went to the cemetery that night to “test their tools,” or shoot guns.

“The evidence will show that the investigators did not conduct gunshot residue (tests) on Quinton Brown to see if he ever fired (his gun),” Cotton said. “The evidence will also show that (investigators) had the gun right there that belonged to Brown but the gun there was never sent to the crime lab.”

Early testimony in the trial included a statement from J.R. Roper Sr., who lives near the cemetery and who testified that a series of gunshots from what sounded like a high-powered weapon woke him up at approximately 3 a.m. the morning of the murder.

Roper said several minutes later another series of shots followed, but after that he was able to go back to sleep.

The person who discovered Brown’s body, Liz Dantone, also testified, saying she had gone to the cemetery to walk her dog that morning when she saw the victim laying on the ground near the McPherson plot of the cemetery.

“He was in the road, sort of humped over face down,” Dantone said. “I remember saying, ‘This is not someone who laid down to go to sleep in the road.’”

Dantone said she exited the cemetery and called the police from her car, where she waited for the police to arrive.

Both Belling and investigator Juan McDonald said they took photos at the scene of the crime, and Belling said when he moved the victim to take more photos Brown was covered in fireants.

McDonald said the investigators did not find any shell casings on the ground, but did find a live 9mm round near the body.

The victim was ultimately identified, Belling said, when he was rolled over and investigators were able to see his face, and he was matched to an old booking photo from the police department.

After identifying the victim, the police contacted his girlfriend, who told them he had been with the defendant and others the night before, McDonald said, and while police were still trying to locate him, Williams and Fort had showed up at the police station that afternoon, stating that both of them were serving as each other’s alibi.

It was after that initial appearance at the police station that Wiliams started to make his successive statements to police investigators.

Fort is scheduled to testify in the trial, and Brown said Fort will say he had nothing to do with the killing, and that he waited in a vehicle outside the cemetery while the rest went to test their tools.

“His testimony will be that he stayed in the van while each of these individuals went down to the cemetery carrying a gun,” Brown said.

Fort’s testimony will also be that Washington came running back to the vehicle saying that Brown was dead, and that Williams threatened to kill him if he told anyone, Brown said.

When Cotton questioned McDonald about Fort’s statements, McDonald said he put into his report that Fort had lied to him several times.

Much of Wednesday’s testimony focused on the technical aspects of the police investigation, and Cotton returned several times to the question of why a gunshot residue test was not conducted on the victim, why the gun found near him was not tested and why weapons were not dusted for fingerprints.

Godbold said the NPD did not fingerprint the weapons because they were going to be sent to the crime lab for that purpose. Godbold also said that had he been at the scene of the crime he would have requested a gunshot residue test, but he was not in town at the time the body was discovered.

“We have no gunshot residue, no crime lab on the guns and no fingerprints to see whose fingerprints were on those guns,” Cotton said. “What we have are a lot of people saying, ‘I had this gun, he had this gun,’ but as far as physical proof, we don’t have anything saying who had what gun.”

Cotton also asked Belling if he could tell the jury who shot first that night, to which the investigator said no.

The trial will continue today.

The 12-person jury is composed of four black women, five white women, one black man and two white men.