Deadlocked jury leads to mistrial in Gathers murder case; retrial expected

Bruce Gathers listens to Judge Arthur C. Hadden as he talks to the jury at New London's Part A court Monday afternoon, July 9. 2012.
Bruce Gathers listens to Judge Arthur C. Hadden as he talks to the jury at New London's Part A court Monday afternoon, July 9. 2012. Aaron Flaum/Norwich Bulletin pool photo

Six years after 19-year-old Sean Hill of Norwich was fatally shot during a Friday night outing with friends, his family members still don’t have the closure they are seeking.

And Hill’s accused killer, Bruce “Man Man” Gathers, continues to have a murder charge hanging over his head, even though his case has just been before a Superior Court jury.

Neither side was happy Monday when Judge Arthur C. Hadden declared a mistrial in Gathers’ murder case. The jury had sent the judge a note saying they remained “split down the middle” after attempting to come to a unanimous verdict.

The jury of eight women and four men began deliberating on Thursday and almost immediately sent the judge a note asking what would happen if they could not come to a decision. They listened to read-back of testimony of several key witnesses before continuing their discussions on Friday.

On Monday morning, after the panel sent out another note saying they were deadlocked, the judge read them the so-called “Chip Smith” charge, which instructs them to once again try to reach a decision. They returned to the jury room but sent a note just before 4 p.m. saying they were unable to agree on a verdict.

Gathers’ attorney, Michael A. Fitzpatrick, had objected when the judge told the lawyers outside the presence of the jury that he intended to declare a mistrial.

Fitzpatrick estimated the jury had deliberated for only five hours and 15 minutes over the three-day period, which he said “is not a substantial amount of time to deliberate in a homicide case.”

“It’s not just an indication of hours spent,” Hadden said. “There doesn’t appear to be any movement of any kind.”

The jurors declined to discuss the deliberations and asked to be escorted to their cars by judicial marshals. One male jury member said in the parking lot that the panel had been split 7-5. He said seven jurors thought Gathers was not guilty while five had voted to convict him.

The lack of resolution to the six-year-old case saddened and frustrated Hill’s relatives, who have attended dozens of court proceedings since Hill was shot in the abdomen near the intersection of Boswell Avenue and Lake Street.

“We’re all disheartened,” said Hill’s father, Richard Hill Jr. “My biggest worry is that he won’t be able to do it to anybody else.”

Hill’s mother cried when she found out the jury was deadlocked.

“I guess the good thing that came out is finding out that Sean did not suffer,” she said later.

The medical examiner who performed the autopsy had testified that Hill probably died within two to seven minutes of being shot.

Gathers’ relatives had attended parts of the trial but were not in court on Monday. The 32-year-old Gathers is still considered a murder defendant and will remain incarcerated in lieu of $1.5 million bond.

Prosecutor Stephen M. Carney said there likely would be a retrial.

“We’ll look at the evidence that was presented, and the testimony, and we have every expectation this would be tried again,” Carney said.

Fitzpatrick had mounted a vigorous defense for Gathers, aggressively cross-examining witnesses and pinning the shooting on Gathers’ codefendant, Gregory “Biscuit” Smith, during his closing argument.

“I don’t think anybody ever feels satisfied with a mistrial,” he said.

As he left the courthouse, he stopped to tell members of Hill’s family that he is sorry for their loss.

The state’s case had relied heavily on the testimony of Justin Smith, a friend of Hill who was with him in downtown Norwich that night. Smith had 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 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.

Another key witness was Jocelyn Williams, who testified that Gathers did not show up for their scheduled date that Friday night in 2006, but called her hours later and asked her to pick him up near Norwich Free Academy. She said Gathers seemed anxious and excited and told her that “the gun went off” when he and Biscuit robbed some kids. He then went into the bathroom, where he washed up and cut his hair, she said.

Williams said she drove Gathers to New London the next morning and did not see him again. Gathers was arrested six months later in New Jersey, where police said he was using an alias. Gathers and Gregory Smith eventually pleaded guilty to robbing Justin Smith. Gathers was sentenced to four years in prison and three years of special parole, while Smith was sentenced to seven years in prison followed by four years special parole.

Norwich police had suspected Gathers and Smith early in the murder investigation but were unable to obtain arrest warrants due to lack of physical evidence and eyewitnesses. The Southeastern Connecticut Cold Case unit reinvestigated the case and obtained warrants for Gathers and Smith in 2010.

In taking the murder case to trial, Gathers rejected an offer to plead guilty to first-degree manslaughter with a firearm in exchange for a sentence of 15 years in prison followed by five years of special parole.

Gathers’ next court date is July 31.

Meanwhile, Hill’s family said they are looking forward to the Sean Hill Memorial Fishing Derby, which they’ve held at Mohegan Park each year since he died. The derby, for children up to 15 years old, will take place on Labor Day.

Hill’s family said he could catch a fish “in a puddle” and had caught seven state trophy fish by the age of 19. They said he loved to teach kids how to fish.

k.florin@theday.com

Richard and Virginia Hill, parents of murder victim Sean Hill, gather at a bench outside New London Superior Court Monday, July 9, 2012 during lunch break for the trial of Hill's accused killer Bruce Gathers. Just before the break the jury informed the judge that they were unable to reach a unanimous verdict in the case.
Richard and Virginia Hill, parents of murder victim Sean Hill, gather at a bench outside New London Superior Court Monday, July 9, 2012 during lunch break for the trial of Hill's accused killer Bruce Gathers. Just before the break the jury informed the judge that they were unable to reach a unanimous verdict in the case. Sean D. Elliot/The Day Buy Photo
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