Lawyers: Cookout ambush suspects wrongly held in old case

AP News
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Posted: Jun 20, 2016 5:09 PM

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Two men described as suspects in a cookout ambush that killed five adults and an unborn child near Pittsburgh have been wrongly jailed in solitary confinement on stale, unrelated charges to squeeze them for information about the shootings, their attorneys said Monday.

Cheron Shelton, 29, and Robert Thomas, 27, are being held on charges stemming from heroin and stolen weapons allegedly found at a home in Wilkinsburg in February 2013. The charges were dropped a month later, then refiled before being dismissed for lack of evidence. They were filed again in April of this year as police sought to question the two men and others in the March 9 shootings at a backyard cookout in Wilkinsburg.

County detectives have labeled Shelton and Thomas as suspects in the shootings, but no charges have been brought.

Randall McKinney, who is Shelton's attorney, questioned the prosecutors' timing in reviving the old case.

"The charges were not refiled until they became quote-unquote suspects," he said.

No evidence has been presented that Shelton had anything to do with the shootings, McKinney said.

He said calling the two men suspects is "an odd way to define them since there's no support for that contention."

The pair have been asked whether others were responsible for the cookout killings, but "it's difficult to cooperate when you don't know anything," McKinney said, also speaking for the attorney for Thomas.

Chanetta Powell, a 25-year-old who was 8 months pregnant, and four others — Jerry Shelton, 35; Tina Shelton, 37; Brittany Powell, 27; and Shada Mahone, 26 — were killed during the cookout. Powell's unborn child also died. Cheron Shelton is not related to any of the victims.

One gunman walked up an alley and fired shots from a pistol toward about 15 cookout guests. When the guests ran toward the house's back door for cover, they were mowed down by another gunman with a rifle.

McKinney and attorney Casey White were in court Monday to argue separate motions related to the 2013 drug charges.

White wants Thomas' $80,000 bond reduced because he has been held in solitary confinement since his arrest. Warden Orlando Harper wouldn't specifically address Thomas' situation, but said generally, inmates are placed in solitary when they're a threat to harm or be harmed by others, or for the "orderly operation" of the facility.

McKinney also hopes to free Shelton, who's being held in lieu of $400,000 bond. But he was in court because prosecutors are trying to get him removed from the case because of an alleged conflict of interest stemming from other clients he represents.

Lawyers for all those charged in the 2013 case say there has been no new investigation and as a result, newly filed charges are nothing more than an illegally filed extension of the old allegations and should be dismissed.

Shelton and Thomas are to be formally arraigned next week. The judge who heard Monday's motions did not rule, deferring to whoever is assigned as trial judge.