For the family of Ephraim Brown, it was a day of anguish and incomprehension that apparently no one will ever be brought to justice for snuffing out the life of the 11-year-old boy.
His mother, Lorna Brown, sobbed inconsolably after a Superior Court jury acquitted two men of second-degree murder Monday afternoon inside an emotionally charged courtroom.
The justice system is “screwed up,” Brown said outside the courthouse.
Nicole Brown, Ephraim’s aunt, was also crying. “We waited for 3½ years and they walk the streets,” she said.
Another aunt, Molly Brown, was hysterical. “It’s over in the courtroom, it is not over out here and you guys know this,” she said. “All you cowards who know the truth and did not step up, there’s no forgiveness for them.”
After deliberating all weekend, the jury apparently rejected the testimony of star Crown witness Kishauna Thomas, 21, who identified Akiel Eubank and Gregory Sappleton, both 24, as the persons who fired handguns at each other at her outdoor birthday party early on July 22, 2007.
Her cousin, Ephraim, died after being struck in the throat.
In court, the defendants — allegedly rival gang members who were trying to kill each other — hugged their lawyers before grabbing and holding onto each other in a tearful embrace.
At a downtown pub after the verdict, Eubank, Sappleton and their families held a low-key celebration.
Eubank, who admitted he once wore his gang affiliation, 5PG (Five Point Generalz) shaved into his haircut, said he is not upset Thomas came to court to “bear false witness,” even though he spent 3½ years in custody.
“Her family put pressure on her to invent her story,” he said with his relieved mother, Donna Highgate, sitting nearby. “I understand her situation and I forgive her for that.”
Highgate flew in from England, where she is a nurse, to attend the trial of her youngest child. “I’m a mother first,” she said. “A mother lost her child. I have compassion for Lorna but I had to stick by my son because I knew he was innocent.”
Eubank’s lawyer, Adam Newman, said the jury had a “difficult task of navigating the waters of expert gang testimony and the emotion it provokes.”
Leora Shemesh, Newman’s co-counsel, said the gang evidence “confused the real issue which was identification.”
She pointed to the stricken look on some of the faces of jurors as they delivered their verdict around 1:45 p.m. Monday. They retired to begin deliberations late Friday after a two-month trial.
“I believe the system got it right,” Shemesh said. “As heart-wrenching as it was, they got it right. They didn’t like our clients but based on the evidence there wasn’t enough to convict.”
Edward Sapiano, who represented Sappleton, said he credits Justice Brian Trafford “for properly instructing the jury to not be overwhelmed by gang evidence and keep their eye on the ball — which was identification.”
During the trial, the defence attacked Thomas’s credibility, pointing to inconsistencies and contradictions in her evidence and police statements since she was first interviewed 12 hours after the shootout.
In his charge to jurors, Trafford instructed them to “scrutinize” her testimony with “the greatest of care. . . . The reason for the need for such a caution is that in our history a number of innocent people have been convicted as a result of a mistake made by eyewitnesses who were accepted by courts as reliable witnesses,” he said.
But during her closing address, prosecutor Donna Armstong had urged jurors to believe Thomas, the only witness who came to court and identified Eubank and Sappleton as the shooters.
“Why would she be doing this at all? Why put her life in jeopardy?” Armstrong said, adding any inconsistencies in her account came as a result of death threats Thomas received.
Ephraim’s family members said Thomas told the truth and it was a tragedy other witnesses refused to do so.
After retiring, the jury returned to court just once, on Sunday morning, to ask that a key portion of Sapiano’s cross-examination of Thomas be read back in court. It related to the position of cars in a parking lot where Thomas said she was standing when the first shots rang out at the Sheppard Ave. W. townhouse complex.