WEST CHESTER – It happened in an instant, Saleem Williams told a Common Pleas Court jury on Tuesday of the shooting of a man he and two friends robbed on the streets of Phoenixville 18 months ago.
The trip had confronted the man, whom they did not know, in the 100 block of Prospect Street after walking the borough streets for some time looking for a likely robbery victim, Williams said. His female friend grabbed a black book bag at the man’s feet, and when the man lunged for it, Williams said he punched him again and again to stop him from retrieving the bag.
“I knocked him to the ground,” Williams said in his testimony under questioning by Assistant District Attorney Sean Poll. “The person was on the ground and she handed me the gun.” Did she say anything at that point, Poll asked?
“She told me to shoot him,” Williams replied. “I pushed him away, and I shot him. For a second, I stood there, because I was shocked. Then we ran up the street.”
The “she” that Williams, 21, of Sharon Hill referred to in his testimony was Monique Robinson, the former senior at Phoenixville High School on trial for the September 2011 murder of 23-year-old Selvin Memerto Lopez-Maurico, a borough man who was on his way home from working the late shift at a Royersford Wendy’s fast food restaurant.
Tuesday’s testimony in the trial in the Chester County Justice Center also featured a dramatic recantation of earlier statements by William’s girlfriend, whose apartment the trio had allegedly used to plan the robbery and where they reportedly returned to divvy up its spoils, that seemed to favor Robinson
Williams, who has pleaded guilty to the murder and robbery and has been sentenced to 40-to-80 years in state prison, gave halted, sometimes mumbled testimony after the jury earlier heard from two others who police said knew of the plot to rob someone at gunpoint. Williams testified that it was Robinson, now 19, who had provided the gun the afternoon before the murder.
“Who killed Selvin Lopez?” Poll had asked Williams when he took the stand in President Judge James P. MacElree II’s courtroom. “I did,” he answered.
“Who gave you the gun to kill Selvin Lopez,” Poll asked. “Monique Robinson,” Williams said quietly but firmly.
Robinson is charged with first, second, and third degree murder, robbery, conspiracy, fleeing and eluding, and related charges in Lopez-Maurico’s death. If convicted of either first-degree or and second-degree murder, she faces a mandatory life sentence in prison.
The prosecution, to prove a case of second degree murder, needs to prove that Lopez-Maurico was killed in the commission of a violent felony, and that Robinson – whether she directly participated in the felony or not – was an accomplice to it.
Williams’ testimony before the nine men and three woman of the jury hearing Robinson’s case put her squarely in the planning and commission of the robbery, and ultimately, the fatal shooting. He said they had discussed getting a gun on Sept. 13, 2011, and then later had talked with him about “going on a mission” to rob someone for money while they were at his girlfriend’s apartment at the former Mansion House Inn on Bridge Street in the borough.
“She said she was willing to go,” he said.
His version of events was largely corroborated by Stephan Reidler, Williams’ girlfriend’s cousin, who was the third member of the group that confronted Lopez-Maurico, although details of his testimony did not match Williams’ exactly. He said, for example, that he watched as Robinson handed Williams the gun from the waistband of her jeans as they walked towards Prospect Street, not at the time of the shooting.
Robinson’s attorney, Robert Donatoni of West Chester cross-examined both men closely, attempting to undercut their credibility with the jury by pointing to their use of illegal drugs the night of the shooting. He also spent time pointing out that the men had initially lied to police investigators about being involved in Lopez-Maurico’s death, and suggesting that the changed their stories to include Robinson so that they would escape a life sentence.
Reidler, however, countered that he had no reason to lie about Robinson’s involvement because he had already been sentenced to a term of 20-to-40 years in state prison by MacElree on third-degree murder charges.
“What I said here is the truth,” Reidler said under questioning by Deputy District Attorney Peter Hobart. “I have no reason to lie.”
He said that although all three of them were to blame for the death, it was Robinson who set the events in motion by bringing the gun from her home to the Mansion House.
“I’m losing half of my life because some girl brought a gun to a place and something bad happened,” he told Donatoni on cross-examination.
Testimony by Caitlin Schierenbeck, Williams’ girlfriend, proved more problematic to the case.
Initially, Schierenbeck had told Phoenixville police and Chester County detectives investigating the case in September 2011 that she had seen Robinson handling the murder weapon and discussing “going on a mission” to find someone to rob. But on cross-examination by Donatoni Tuesday, she said that she had lied about seeing his client with the gun in order to cover up for Williams and to win release from Chester County Prison on drug charges. She also said she had later recanted that statement to an investigator.
“Is it true about Monique and the gun?” Donatoni asked. “No,” she answered. “It was a lie, correct?” he asked. “Correct,” she said.
But under re-direct by Hobart, Schierenbeck admitted that she had never told him about lying to police, and had in fact buttressed her account of the evening’s events just a few weeks prior during her trial preparation. “Your statement to me was that everything was fine, and everything was the same, right? Hobart asked. ”Yes,” she answered.
Then, in a more surprising move, Schierenbeck was recalled to the witness stand after the jury had left the courtroom for the afternoon by Hobart. Under oath, she said she had lied about lying, and had indeed actually seen Robinson with the gun before the trio left her apartment.
“I just don’t want to see someone go to jail, you know?” she told MacElree as the reason she changed her story. “I feel like Saleem did it. He killed that kid. He did it himself. Nobody forced him to do it. Why should other people get charged?”
But she also said that she had decided to revise her false testimony after a unidentified woman in the county District Attorney’s Office told her she would be charged with perjury for lying on the stand and go back to jail. “You are in big trouble,” she quoted the woman as saying.
Schierenbeck also told Donatoni that she had decided to lie about seeing Robinson with the gun because of threats that came from people “on the street.”
“If I got up here today, they were going to kill me,” she said. But pressed by Donatoni to identify who had threatened her, Schierenbeck refused to answer.
MacElree said he would leave it up to Hobart to decide whether he would attempt to re-call Schierenbeck to the stand to revisit her testimony.
Regardless of whether she life about seeing Robinson with the gun at her apartment, Schrienbeck, under Hobart’s questioning, acknowledged that Robinson had been there, that someone in the trip had a gun, and that she left the apartment with Williams and Reidler.