WEST CHESTER – The motivations of the various players in the murder trial involving a former Phoenixville High School senior accused in the death of a borough man were debated in opening statements Monday in Common Pleas Court.
To the prosecution, the defendant, Monique Robinson had any number of reasons for gathering together two men to go “on a mission” to find someone to rob the night of the shooting of 23-year-old Selvin Memerto Lopez-Maurico.
“It was her idea,” said Deputy District Attorney Peter Hobart of Robinson, 19, of Phoenixville. “She came to them and asked if they could go out on a mission” to get money to buy drugs. “Whether it was for cheap thrills, or easy money, or just to act like a thug, she made the conscious decision to go out and rob someone that evening.”
But to defense attorney Robert Donatoni of West Chester, representing Robinson, the motivation of his client was less of a question that that of the three witness who are expected to testify against her – the actual shooter, an accomplice, and the shooter’s girlfriend.
“They don’t have the courage to go through a trial,” Donatoni told the nine men and women here on the jury who began hearing the case. “They have plea bargained their way out of coming out of prison in a box.”
To escape facing the same verdict of first-degree murder that his client faces, the two men – Saleem Williams and Stephan Reidler – pleaded guilty to lesser charges in exchange for their testimony. “They want to throw it on ‘the geek,’” Donatoni said, referring to the nickname the trio had for his client.
The one person whose motivation, however, was not disputed in opening statements was Lopez-Maurico. Hobart said that the victim, a Guatemalan native who was part of the growing Latino community in Phoenixville, had gotten off work at a Wendy’s restaurant in Royersford, packed his backpack with food for a late night meal, and hopped on a bus bound for the borough, where he lived with an uncle.
“He just wanted to get home,” the prosecutor told the jury.
Robinson is facing charges of first, second, and third-degree murder for the September 2011 shooting of Lopez-Maurico in the 100 block of Prospect Street. She also is charged with robbery and criminal conspiracy, and feeling or eluding prosecution. She was arrested three months after the shooting, having disappeared after learning that the police suspected her involvement in the case.
Williams, who had admitted firing the singe shot that struck Lopez-Maurico in the abdomen and eventually led to his death, has pleaded guilty to third-degree murder and robbery charges and accepted a sentence of 40-to-80 years. He also pleaded guilty to attempting an escape from Chester County Prison with another accused murderer.
Reidler, a multiple convicted felon, pleaded guilty to third degree murder charges and was sentenced to 20-to-40 years in state prison.
Both are expected to testify either Tuesday or Wednesday in the case.
According to Hobart’s opening statement, Lopez-Maurico was on his way home from Wendy’s in the early morning hours of Sept. 14, 2011, when he was given $300 from a relative that was to be sent home to the family in Guatemala. He was sitting on the front stoop of a house on Prospect Street with his uncle, talking, when they were approached by three people – two men and a woman.
The trio grabbed Lopez-Maurico’s backpack, while Williams held a handgun to the victim’s uncle’s forehead. They ran from the scene, but were followed by Lopez-Maurico, who struggled with Robinson over the backpack. Hobart said that at some point, Robison looked at Williams – whom she had known since she was 9 years old – and said, “Shoot him! Shoot him!” The shooting took place about 12:45 a.m.
Hobart said that Williams had gotten the gun from Robinson earlier on Sept. 13, 2011. He said she had shown it off at the apartment where Williams was staying with his girlfriend, Caitlin Schierenbeck, Reidler’s cousin. The trio had left her apartment around midnight, with Robinson carrying the weapon, Hobart said his evidence would show.
“She was involved not just a little bit, but up to her neck,” he said, calling the case a “classic second degree murder” in which someone is guilty of being an accomplice in a felony where someone is killed.
In his opening, Donatoni took pains to discredit Williams, Reidler, and Schierenbeck, saying they had all lied when first approached by police about the shooting. Williams and Reidler had been identified from surveillance videos in the area surrounding the scene.
“They gave multiple, multiple lies,” he said of their initial statements. “Nothing truthful was passing through their lips.” It was not until they were offered plea bargains to testify, to escape the life sentence that is mandatory with first or second-degree murder, did they implicate Robinson. “She’s outsider,” he said. “The street urchin.”
The case is expected to last through the week.
Before jury selection began, MacElree’s questions about the status of an offer from the prosecution of a proposed sentence in the case created the possibility that the trial would be abandoned and Robinson would plea guilty.
He said he wanted to ensure that Robinson was making an informed decision she would not try to back out of at a future date. If convicted of first-degree or second-degree murder, MacElree noted, Robinson would face a mandatory life in prison. “In Pennsylvania, life means life,” MacElree stated. “There is no parole. You sit there forever. You die in jail.”
Hobart said that his last offer would be to allow Robinson to plead to third-degree murder and conspiracy to commit robbery in exchange for a sentence of 30-to-60 years in prison. He and Donatoni agreed that the deadline for that had passed.
Robinson told the judge that she was aware of the offer, and had decided not to accept it, even though Donatoni said he made a “strong recommendation” in the case. When Donatoni asked whether Robinson could speak with her mother, MacElree cleared the courtroom t give her the opportunity to discus her decision once more.
“It’s best that we take some time now so that the best decision for Miss Robinson can be made,” the judge said.
About 20 minutes later, the courtroom reopened, Robinson’s extended family entered, and Donatoni announced that he was ready to begin the trial, his client having once again said she would take her case to the jury.