WEST CHESTER — The West Goshen man who shot his next-door neighbor in the head after years of disputes was found guilty of first-degree murder by a Chester County Common Pleas Court jury.

The panel of eight women and four men hearing the case returned its verdict against Clayton Carter III around 10:40 p.m. Thursday after deliberating almost 10 hours at the Chester County Justice Center, according to court sources.

The verdict came after attorneys for the two sides offered sharply different versions of the tragic events in the case during closing arguments on the question of who had provoked who the night of the fatal encounter.

To defense attorney Joseph P. Green Jr. of West Chester, who represents Carter, the onus belonged on the shoulders of the victim, G. Brooks Jennings.

For years, Green argued, Jennings had attempted to make life for Carter as uncomfortable as possible, hoping he would get exhausted at the constant bickering and leave the tight-knit neighborhood of Box Elder Drive.

“Jennings knows how to provoke (Carter), and he has been practicing and practicing and practicing,” Green said in his closing, pointing to episodes like filming Carter in his backyard and shining flood lights at him in the middle of the night. ”If you continue to provoke someone over a period of years, eventually there are going to be consequences.” 

But to Deputy District Attorney Thomas Ost-Prisco, leading the prosecution against Carter, the evidence was “overwhelming” that Carter was the party who precipitated the events of the fatal night.

He brought a gun to the face-to-face stand off in front of the two men’s homes that early morning, and concealed a folding knife that he could plant on Jennings to make the shooting look like self-defense.

“He is the one who is goading Brooks into a fight,” Ost-Prisco told the panel, using Jennings’ first name, quoting Carter as daring Jennings to “cross the line” and come onto his family’s property so he could shoot him as a trespasser. “He is starting the confrontation. He set the trap. He is baiting him.”

The question of provocation was key to both sides. The answer determined whether Carter would be found not guilty because he was justified in using deadly force against a man who had been digging at him for months, if not years, or instead is guilty of first-degree murder, because he had no valid claim of self-defense and was, rather, the clear instigator of the shooting.

The jury received the case around 12:50 p.m. Thursday after hearing the two sides’ closing arguments and legal instructions from Common Pleas Judge Ann Marie Wheatcraft, who presided over the trial.

Carter, 53, was charged with first-degree murder, third-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter and related charges in the Aug. 8, 2017 death of Jennings, a 51-year-old father of one and small businessman who was described by his wife as a friend to all of his neighbors — with the extreme exception of Carter, who lived next door with his wife, their daughter, and his father-in-law, who owned the home.

Convicted of first-degree murder, Carter now faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole. He will be formally sentenced at a later date.

The prosecution had contended that Carter, armed with a small, .380 caliber handgun, had planned for some time to commit a “cold-blooded, calculated execution,” of the neighbor who he was obsessed with and then fabricate a tale that he was acting to protect himself from an attack.

The defense, on the other had, asserted that Carter was acting in self defense of Jennings’ own drunken badgering that night. He told police in an interview that he had shot Jennings two times — once while he was lying on the ground — because he was afraid Jennings intended to stab him as the climax to a confrontation that had begun some hours before.

In his argument, delivered first by rules of criminal procedure, Green spent a significant portion of time explaining the law that governs self-defense, or “justification,” cases. In doing so, he cast a critical eye on Jennings’ behavior towards his longtime neighbor.

A criminal defendant is allowed under the law to use deadly force if he feels he is being threatened with a deadly weapon, and the burden is on the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that there was no true threat. In addition, a defendant can be found guilty of voluntary manslaughter if the jury finds that he acted in the heat of passion after a series of events meant to provoke a response.

The two men had been at one another for a long period of time, including an incident in May 2015 in which Green said Jennings tried to force his way into Carter’s home and had to be driven away from Carter pointing a shotgun at him. The night of the shooting in 2017, Jennings had taunted Carter while he was playing horseshoes in his backyard, filming him on a cellphone and calling him “Sponge” — a nickname Jennings had given him. The two men cursed at one another.

Then around 11:30 p.m., Jennings — after what Green characterized as a day of drinking — began wiring high-powered “cam” lights on the front of his garage and shining them into Carter’s eyes when the neighbor tried to park his car after. “Why would you want to install cam lights in your driveway at 1 in the morning?” unless you meant to anger your neighbor, Green asked. “Those lights are a clear example” of the provocation.

The two men argued for more than 45 minutes outside their homes until Carter, in his police statement, said he saw Jennings flash a knife at him. He then drew the .380 caliber Ruger semi-automatic pistol he had retried earlier from his home and fired it at Jennings. 

Police found a knife at he scene, lying under Jennings' left hand. But DNA recovered from the knife was identified as Carter’s, and not Jennings. In his closing, Green argued that the matter was a case of “DNA transfer” that occurred when an officer at the scene kicked the knife across the wet grass lawn when the shooting occurred.

The evidence of Carter’s DNA was a “red herring,” Green said. “Don’t let it overpower you because it is sexy.”

But in rebuttal, Ost-Prisco reminded the jurors that the DNA expert from the Pennsylvania State Police lab who testified had been certain that the DNA on the folding knife matched that of Carter’s and no on else. Her worked had been checked and reviewed. To suggest that it somehow got on the knife from the wet grass was “magical” thinking, he said.

Green’s defense was a replay of the penultimate scene from the film “The Wizard of Oz” when the false wizard attempts to distract Dorothy and her friends by saying, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” Ost-Prisco said.

For Ost-Prisco, the significant factor in finding that Carter had acted with intent to kill was embodied by the second shot he fired that night. It came 12 seconds after the first — proven by audio from a neighbor’s security system that recorded the shooting — with the barrel of the Ruger less than 20 inches from Jennings' face, while the other man lay on the ground, likely lifeless. 

“If you look at the second shot by itself, self-defense is out the window,” Ost-Prisco said. “This was a cold blooded execution, and that second shot tells you everything you need to know. There is no justification for that second shot.”

He cast aide the notion that Jennings had provoked a deadly confrontation, noting that in previous incidents “it is always the defendant stating trouble. The other neighbors kept saying, ‘Will you just leave people alone?’"

Ost-Prisco suggested that Carter had planned the shooting for sometime. He said that a previous encounter with Jennings in which he pointed a shotgun at the neighbor had ended with Jennings retreating away from his front door. The prosecutor said, Carter knew he needed a smaller weapon that could be hidden and a knife to plant. “This man was obsessed with Brooks Jennings,” he said. “He hated him. He despised him. But he can’t shoot him if Brooks doesn't have a knife, so he set him up.”

He reminded the jury that Jill Jennings, who testified last Friday, said that she had heard her husband pleading with Carter to remove a skeleton display from his front yard because it was disturbing to neighborhood children.

“In the last hour of his life, he was trying to do something for the neighborhood,” Ost-Prisco said. “Does that sound like that act of someone who is standing there with a knife ready to stab someone?

“No one is perfect,” the prosecutor said of Jennings. “But he did not deserve to die.”

To contact staff writer Michael P. Rellahan call 610-696-1544.

To contact Staff Writer Michael P. Rellahan call 610-696-1544.

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