Stokes: Not Guilty

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 13, 2012

Stokes found not guilty of murdering friend

On trial: Damion Stokes, 19, accused of capital murder
Co-defendants: Gary Dantzson, JaQuinton Lawson, Vincent Ruffin
Victim: Ira Phillips, 20
Verdict: Jurors found Stokes guilty of conspiracy to commit murder, not guilty of murder

By Billy Davis

After a two-day trial in Sardis, only one thing is certain: Ira Phillips is dead.   

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A forensic pathologist testified Tuesday in a capital murder trial that Phillips was killed in Crenshaw in a hail of gunfire on the night of March 28, 2011.

An autopsy showed Phillips, who was 20, was shot six times.

Four bullets entered and exited the young man’s body, and two more bullets were removed from the body, Dr. Amy Gruszecki said from the witness stand in Sardis.

The prosecution presented the theory that Phillips had owed money to Vincent “Unc” Ruffin, a reputed Crenshaw drug dealer he allegedly worked for, and Ruffin instructed other employees to teach Phillips a lesson.

Gary Dantzson, Phillips’ admitted killer, said from the witness stand he owed Ruffin $1,500 and was told some of the debt would be forgiven if he and two others “whooped” Phillips to teach him a lesson.

Instead, Dantzson claimed Damion Stokes handed him a Tec-9 handgun on the night of March 28 and told Dantzson, “Unc said handle this.”

For the prosecution, Dantzson also included a detail to the shooting: everyone in the car was smoking marijuana as they drove through Crenshaw — except Stokes, he said.

“Why was Damion there?” asked Assistant District Attorney Jay Hale.

“Strictly for business,” Dantzson replied.

When Phillips ran from them, Dantzson said he opened fire. “I just started shooting,” he told Hale.

“Did you shoot Ira Phillips?” Hale asked.

“Yes, sir,” Dantzson replied.

Panola sheriff’s investigator Barry Thompson, testifying for the prosecution, said the crime scene suggested Phillips was shot as he ran.

Thompson cited the location of bullet casings and the trail of blood leading to the body, and said he also found a “dig out mark,” a shoe imprint that indicates someone had dug in their heel to run.  

According to the pathologist, she found 10 wounds all over Phillips’ body from the six bullets, concluding that Phillips died of a homicide.

During the trial, Hale laid out the state’s theory that a 20-year-old victim had died of multiple gunshot wounds as he ran, using testimony from Gruszecki and Thompson, and from the admitted triggerman himself.

But a circuit court jury was not convinced that Stokes, on trial for capital murder, was guilty of the killing.

After two hours of deliberation, the jury of five men and seven women emerged from the jury room late Tuesday afternoon and announced Stokes was not guilty of capital murder.

Somehow the jury found Stokes guilty of conspiracy to commit murder, which carries a maximum 20-year sentence.  

It was unclear why jurors voted guilty on one count and not guilty on a second, when the counts were so closely related.

One possible factor is that Stokes testified on his own behalf, and on the witness stand he stuck to an original version of the shooting: a second car arrived on the scene, and shots fired from that automobile struck and killed Phillips.

Stokes testified he was expecting to be dropped off somewhere else when he rode with driver JaQuinton Lawson, Dantzson and Phillips to an apartment complex in Crenshaw.

Stokes said Lawson and Phillips were planning to rob someone they were about to meet — with the nickname “Little Boosie” — and he claimed Phillips got out of the car in nearby bushes to await the ambush.

“Gary never fired a shot at Ira,” Stokes told Larry Maxey, his court-appointed defense attorney.

On cross-examination, and in front of jurors, Hale allowed Stokes to draw on a chart where he claimed the second automobile was located.

The chart already showed the location of bullet casings, the blood trail and Phillips’ body, and the prosecutor suggested Phillips would have been running at the second automobile when he was shot.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Hale said, citing law enforcement’s investigation of the crime scene.

But Stokes stuck to his story.

“Gary did not shoot that man,” Stokes said, suggesting at one point that law enforcement had convinced his co-defendants to change their stories to fit investigators’ conclusions.

The prosecution also claimed that Stokes brought the murder weapon from his home, but two family members testified for the defense that there were no firearms in the home and Stokes left home that night with a piece of chicken and a slice of pizza.

After Stokes stepped down, Hale called Thompson to testify a second time.

Thompson said Stokes and his co-defendants told “basically the same” story about a second car, though their descriptions of its color and model were “inconsistent.”

Thompson then reminded jurors that evidence at the scene suggested Phillips had started running away from the scene.  

“Was there any evidence there was a second car there?” Hale asked.

“No, sir,” Thompson replied.

Under cross-examination by Maxey, Thompson said he and other investigators had investigated other people — presumably in the second car — that defendants said were responsible for the homicide.

“I never quit investigating when I get a tip,” said Thompson, who is a veteran investigator and respected for his work.

In closing arguments, the defense attorney followed up on his client’s claims about the second automobile.

“I submit to you that Gary Dantzson was not the shooter. There was a second car,” Maxey said.
Hale, meanwhile, reminded jurors that Dantzson had admitted to a homicide.

“He’s going to spend a long time in prison. He shot a man,” Hale said of Dantzson. “He has no reason to lie.”  

Jurors could have found Stokes guilty of manslaughter if they were convinced Dantzson shot Phillips in a panic, with Stokes as an accomplice.  But that heat-of-passion option failed to fly in the jury room, too.

There was a sign jurors were wrangling over the case when Judge Jimmy McClure received a note at 4:57, stating the jury had reached a verdict on Count 1, the conspiracy charge. On Count 2, the murder charge, the jury was “split.”

McClure sent a note back and instructed them to continue deliberations, and at 5:25 the judge received a second note: the jury was ready.

After the verdict was read and jurors were dismissed, Hale informed the court that Stokes would be returned to the Miss. Department of Corrections while he awaits sentencing on the conspiracy charge.

Stokes was convicted in 2007 of robbing a grocery store when he was 14.  

He was on probation when he was charged with murder.