A Roanoke man charged with first-degree murder and two other major felonies saw all the cases against him fall away in rapid succession Monday during an unusual and uncommonly brief jury trial in circuit court.
Roanoke Commonwealth’s Attorney Donald Caldwell later said it was largely due to the recent death of a key witness whose demise “effectively ended the prosecution of this case.”
The jury trial centered on Marcus Vernell Clark II, 19, who was charged last summer with fatally shooting an acquaintance, 24-year-old Rashard Jessup, and with possessing a gun as a violent felon and using that weapon to commit murder.
But early Monday, as Clark was being arraigned, prosecutors revealed that they were dropping the murder charge as well as the count of use of a firearm.
That decision was “due to witness issues,” Roanoke assistant prosecutor Chrystal Smith told Judge David Carson at the outset.
Smith did not elaborate in court. But Kyyona Casey, Jessup’s ex-girlfriend, had been subpoenaed in the case. She was shot and killed in a July 17 attack somewhere near Orange Avenue.
“[Casey] was the only eyewitness that had been developed who would’ve identified Marcus Clark as the person who did the shooting” of Jessup, Caldwell said Monday. He said Casey, 21, had been meeting with prosecutors for months about Jessup’s death.
In the dramatically reduced trial that went forward Monday, solely on Clark’s gun possession charge, jury selection actually took longer than the presentation of evidence, which involved just a single prosecution witness and no testimony at all from the defense.
Jurors deliberated for less than 20 minutes before returning a not-guilty verdict for Clark. He had faced a mandatory minimum punishment of five years in prison.
Clark, who was arrested in Richmond a few days after Jessup’s slaying on Aug. 16, 2018, has been held without bond in Roanoke’s jail ever since. He was due to be released sometime Monday.
Although about a half-dozen people were subpoenaed by prosecutors, the bulk of the case against Clark ultimately came down to one witness: Rashard Jessup’s grandmother, 71-year-old Brenda Gillespie.
Gillespie testified that on the day her grandson was shot, she and her boyfriend had driven him to Casey’s apartment on Orange Avenue. Jessup and Casey had recently split up and he was collecting some of his possessions from her, Gillespie said.
She testified that while they were in Casey’s apartment with her, at least two other men were present, armed with holstered handguns on their hips. When Jessup suddenly grabbed Casey, Gillespie said, one of those men drew a 9 mm semi-automatic pistol.
“You put your hands on her again, I’m gonna shoot you,” the man told Jessup, Gillespie maintained, and from the stand she identified the person who made that threat as Marcus Clark.
“You heard one witness,” Smith later acknowledged to jurors in her closing, but argued: “She was quite sure of what she saw. She told you exactly what she saw.”
Additionally, Smith submitted Clark’s prior criminal record which included a May 2017 conviction for unlawful wounding after he shot a teenager in the abdomen near Hurt Park. That felony offense makes it illegal for him to possess any firearms.
In closing arguments that ran for about a half-hour, defense attorney Chris Kowalczuk picked at the slender nature of the case and referenced the accusations that led to the Salem witch trials in Massachusetts during the late 1600s.
“You need more than the grandmother to find him guilty,” Kowalczuk told the jury. “You should have heard more evidence. You should’ve had more evidence.”
It was not clear what time of day the threat Gillespie described was alleged to have occurred, but about 5 p.m. that same afternoon, Jessup was found shot and critically wounded in a home in the 700 block of 18th Street Northwest, police have said. He was hospitalized but died very early the following day.
Caldwell said that although the murder charge was dropped, it could be brought back if more evidence emerges.
The July shooting that killed Casey also claimed the life of Justin Jennings, 31, and injured 30-year-old Deontray Clements. Police have revealed few details about it but have said officers patrolling Patterson Avenue Southwest about 2 a.m. heard gunshots. About a mile away, they found a vehicle headed east on Orange Avenue. When police pulled it over, they discovered the three victims inside. Casey died at the scene.
She and Jennings represent the seventh and eighth reported homicides in Roanoke this year.
On Monday, Roanoke police spokeswoman Caitlyn Cline said no arrests have been made in that incident, and she said she had no new information about it.
Staff writer Henri Gendreau contributed to this report.