Jury deliberations begin at Gathers murder trial

A New London jury started deliberating in the murder trial of Bruce R. Gathers Thursday after listening to two weeks of testimony in the six-year-old case.

Gathers, 32, is accused of fatally shooting 19-year-old Sean Hill in Norwich on June 3, 2006.

Family members of Hill and Gathers were in the courtroom along with four police officers who worked on the case as the lawyers for the state and Gathers delivered closing arguments.

The jury of eight women and four men retired to the jury room after Judge Arthur C. Hadden instructed them on the law, then quickly sent out a note saying they wanted to listen again to testimony of key witnesses. Stenographer Cheryl Straub was reading back the testimony when the trial adjourned for the day. The deliberations will continue today.

During his summation, prosecutor Stephen M. Carney turned toward Gathers at the defense table several times, pointed to him and said that he was guilty of Hill’s murder. Carney said that the evidence before the jury, including statements from people with criminal histories and drug or alcohol problems, all contain “hallmarks of verisimilitude,” or signs of truthfulness.

The state’s case depends heavily on Justin Smith, who testified that he was pistol-whipped and robbed by Gathers moments before the shooting and that he saw Gathers shoot Hill as the two tussled near the intersection of Boswell Avenue and Lake Street. Smith, a convicted felon currently incarcerated for a parole violation, was interviewed by police following the shooting but did not tell them until August 2007, after he had been arrested on an assault charge, that he saw Gathers shoot Hill.

Smith testified that Gathers and Gregory “Biscuit” Smith confronted him in the hallway of 64 Boswell Ave. after he sold a tenant a $20 rock of crack cocaine for $13. Witnesses said Gregory Smith, who is unrelated to Justin Smith, recently had been selling drugs from the building.

“The state would say to you that this is what ultimately led to the homicide of Sean Hill, that undercutting of price, that $7 difference,” Carney said.

Justin Smith testified that he broke away from the two men and ran down Boswell Avenue, past where Hill, a friend he had gone downtown with that night, was standing. He said he turned back and saw Gathers tussling in a bear hug with Hill and then shooting him.

Gathers and Gregory Smith eventually pleaded guilty to the robbery. Investigators made the connection between the two crimes right away but didn’t have enough evidence to charge Gathers and Gregory Smith with murder until 2010.

Gregory Smith rejected a plea deal in November and is awaiting trial.

Justin Smith said he initially told police just enough to help them figure out what happened.

“He tells us in his statement that he was too scared to tell everything,” Carney said.

The police did not recover a gun and could not tie Gathers to the shooting through DNA. They did, however, find Gathers’ DNA on the sweatshirt that Justin Smith was wearing that night.

Another key witness was Jocelyn Williams, who testified that Gathers stood her up for a date that night but that she picked up Gathers near Norwich Free Academy after he called her around 2 or 3 a.m.

At her house on Donahue Drive, Gathers told her he had been involved in a shooting, took a shower and cut his hair, she said. She drove him to New London the next morning, and police said Gathers fled to New Jersey, where he was using an alias when he was arrested in November 2006.

Defense attorney Michael Fitzpatrick told the jury Justin Smith is a “totally untrustworthy witness” who would lie at the drop of a hat.

“Why would he be afraid to implicate a person in one crime (the murder) while he’s implicating them in the other (the robbery)?” Fitzpatrick said. He said it didn’t make sense that none of Gathers’ blood was on Hill.

“That would not be consistent with two people engaged in a struggle,” he said. Also, if the shooter was that close to Hill, there would have been gunshot residue on him, Fitzpatrick said.

Fitzpatrick implicated Gregory Smith as the shooter and said it was not surprising that Gathers had fled to New Jersey, where he had family ties.

“Could you blame him for leaving Connecticut if he’s in the area and Gregory Smith kills Sean Hill?” Fitzpatrick said. “He’s a street guy. He’s going to think, ‘I’m in trouble, too.’”

k.florin@theday.com

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