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Key witness testifies at Gathers murder trial

Justin M. Smith, a key witness in the state’s murder case against Bruce R. Gathers, cried on the witness stand in New London Superior Court Tuesday as he recalled the June 2006 shooting death of his “close friend,” Sean Hill.

The 35-year-old Mystic native’s voice broke as he described hearing a gunshot, seeing a flash of light and watching Hill, 19, “slump over.” The two men had met at “the marina,” Smith said, and Hill was teaching him how to fish.

But during cross-examination, defense attorney Michael Fitzpatrick asked Smith, a twice-convicted felon currently incarcerated for an alleged parole violation, if his tears were real and how much he really cared about Hill. Fitzpatrick reminded Smith — and the jury — that Smith neglected to tell police he witnessed the shooting during several initial interviews. Fitzpatrick implied that Smith is testifying in order to get a better deal with his own cases. Smith maintained he has been promised nothing.

Smith, under direct examination by prosecutor Stephen M. Carney, had testified that he, Hill and three others stopped in the Boswell Avenue neighborhood after visiting friends in another part of town. Two of the men left the car, and Smith said he got antsy and started walking up the street. Hill remained behind, where he was “making out” with the other passenger, Chandra Jackson, Smith said.

Smith said a man named Todd called to him from inside an apartment to ask if he had any crack cocaine. Smith said he went in and sold the man a small rock of crack that somebody else had given him earlier in exchange for a bottle of liquor. As he attempted to leave the building, Smith said, he was jumped by Gathers and Gregory “Biscuit” Smith, who is unrelated to the witness. Smith said Gathers pistol whipped his head and that he turned over the contents of his pockets — $13 and a small amount of marijuana.

Smith said he broke away from the two men and fled, only to realize he had “overshot,” or run past, the car in which he had arrived, which was in a driveway near the intersection of Boswell Street and Franklin Avenue. He said he turned around and saw Gathers tussling with Hill near the car. He said he heard a gunshot, saw a flash of light and saw Hill “slumped over.”

“I seen Mr. Gathers take off,” he testified. “He ran up Lake Street and across Boswell Avenue.”

Smith testified that Hill pointed toward Gathers, so he chased him, but eventually gave up and went back to the Division Street home where he was staying. He said police came to question him a short time later, but he didn’t tell the whole story because he “didn’t want to get involved at the time.”

Gathers and Gregory “Biscuit” Smith have both pleaded guilty to robbing Justin Smith that day but deny their alleged role in the shooting death of Hill that occurred moments later.

The trial resumes today.

k.florin@theday.com

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