WEST CHESTER — The Common Pleas jury hearing the case of a former Phoenixville Area High School senior on Thursday found her guilty of second-degree murder, declaring that she had been an accomplice in the shooting death of a restaurant worker during a robbery that yielded a backpack full of clothes, a paycheck, $300 in cash, and his fast-food dinner.
“There are no winners here,” said Deputy District Attorney Peter Hobart, the lead prosecutor in the case against teenager Monique Robinson, who broke down in tears as she sat next to her attorney and heard the verdict read by the jury foreman. The panel of nine men and three women had deliberated for just under six hours before returning with their decision.
“It’s a young girl facing a life sentence, but you cannot bring the victim back,” Hobart said after the verdict was announced in President Judge James P. MacElree II’s courtroom in the Chester County Justice Center.
In addition to second-degree murder, which carries with it the state’s mandatory life sentence in prison without the possibility of parole, Robinson was found guilty of robbery, aggravated assault, theft, conspiracy, firearms violations, and flight to avoid apprehension for the September 2011 shooting death of Selvin Mamerto Lopez-Mauricio.
After the verdict, Robinson, a slight woman with long black hair pulled into a pony tail and wearing a white blouse and gray pants, was returned to Chester County Prison, where she has been held without bail since her apprehension in December 2011, to await sentencing. She had fled from authorities after leaning that she was a suspect in the case.
MacElree, who presided over the four-day-long trial, did not set a formal sentencing date. He may add more time to her mandatory murder sentence on the other charges at that time.
Robinson, 19, of Phoenixville, had gambled that the jury would determine that she was either an innocent bystander in the fatal shooting of Lopez-Mauricio or at worst was guilty of third-degree murder, which does not carry a mandatory sentence. According to statements in MacElree’s court on Monday, she had been offered a plea agreement by the prosecution that would have resulted in a sentence of 30 to 60 years.
Her attorney, Robert Donatoni of West Chester, offered no comment following the verdict, which came at approximately 7 p.m. Thursday.
Earlier Thursday, Donatoni had urged the jury not to pin a guilty verdict on his client based on the two co-defendants who testified against her.
The men, with extensive criminal records who lied to police about their involvement in the murder after being arrested, were “corrupt and polluted sources” whose version of events should be viewed with skepticism, Donatoni said.
He compared the pair’s testimony, putting Robinson at the center of a planned robbery that led to Lopez-Mauricio’s fatal shooting, to biting into a candy bar and finding a worm inside. “You throw it away,” he said. “These guys are the worms crawling out of the candy bar.”
But Hobart, in addition to defending the men’s testimony in the trial as ultimately truthful, said the jury could find Robinson guilty of the charges against her simply by accepting the version of events spelled out by the victim’s uncle, who was at the scene while the shooting unfolded.
He reminded the panel that Esuardo Lopez, whose nephew was shot once in the abdomen and later died, testified he saw a woman later identified as Robinson grab a backpack belonging to the victim while two men accosted them on a dark street.
“That makes her involved in the robbery and therefore guilty of felony murder,” Hobart told the jurors during his summation Thursday. “There is no way around that. And that alone is enough. By definition that makes her guilty of second-degree murder.
“There are many paths up a mountain, but once you get to the top the view is always the same,” Hobart said.
Robinson, 19, of Phoenixville, was implicated by testimony from her co-defendants, Saleem Williams, 21, of Sharon Hill, and Stephen Reidler, 25, of Linfield, who indicated that Robinson had secured the gun used in the shooting the afternoon before from her father’s home, and had joined in their conversation about “going on a mission” to rob someone and get money that night.
Lopez-Mauricio, 23, who emigrated to the borough from his native Guatemala and joined a growing Latino community there, was on his way home after finishing his shift at a Wendy’s fast-food restaurant in Royersford early that morning. As he sat and spoke with his uncle near his home on Prospect Street, they were approached by two men and a woman. The men accosted Lopez-Mauricio and his uncle, with Williams allegedly pointing a .22 semi-automatic handgun at the uncle.
Testimony showed that Robinson grabbed Lopez-Maurico’s backpack, and Williams began punching him while Reidler kept the uncle from telephoning police. When Robinson ran from the scene Lopez-Maurico tried to chase her. Robinson then allegedly turned and told Williams, “Shoot him.”
Williams shot Lopez-Mauricio once in the abdomen. He survived for some time afterward, but died on his way to Phoenixville Hospital.
After the shot was fired, the trio of Robinson, Reidler and Williams then returned to an apartment on Bridge Street that Williams shared with his girlfriend. There, they divided up the contents of the backpack, including food that Lopez-Mauricio had brought home from Wendy’s for his late dinner. Hobart contended in his case that Robinson had kept $300 in cash she found in the backpack for herself.
The jury began its deliberations about 1:15 p.m. Thursday after listening to two hours of closing arguments by Donatoni and Hobart and about 90 minutes of legal instructions by MacElree. Part of the legal case that MacElree instructed the panel on was the concept of accomplice liability and how it would fit in with the charges Robinson faced.
To be guilty of a crime, one must be a principal, a conspirator or an accomplice. In Hobart’s words, being an accomplice means being as much a part of a crime as a principal. “The getaway driver is just as guilty as the bank robber,” he told the jury during his closing.
Donatoni, on the other hand, counseled the panel that simply being a bystander to a crime does not make one guilty. “Yes, she was there, but she didn’t do this.” Mere presence at the scene of a crime is not proof of guilt, he said.
Donatoni, in his closing, argued two things — that the prosecution’s case was full of doubt because of the credibility of its key witnesses — Williams and Reidler — and that his client was facing far more serious charges than they pleaded guilty to, even though Williams had pulled the trigger.
“How many times must someone lie to police in the investigation of a murder before they are disbelieved?” Donatoni asked the jury. “You simply cannot believe Reidler and Williams. They lied over and over and over again.”
If the jurors accepted that they lied, Donatoni argued, “you have a reasonable doubt, and if you have a reasonable doubt the verdict has to be not guilty.”
But even if the panel chose to believe the men, “is Monique Robinson’s conduct any more egregious than that of Saleem Williams?” Donatoni asked. Showing a photo of the heavily bruised face of the deceased Lopez-Mauricio, he said, “Monique Robinson didn’t do any of that. She didn’t touch a soul. How can you treat her any more harshly?”
“They get third-degree murder. We are asking for a degree of fairness,” the veteran defense attorney said.
Hobart urged the jury to accept the law as MacElree instructed them.
“It is a simple case. The only thing you need to decide is whether the defendant was involved just a little bit in the planning and commission of a robbery,” the prosecutor said. “Regardless of whether it was her gun, or whether she wanted anyone killed,” she is guilty of second-degree murder, “because that is the value of a human life.”
Hobart drew the jurors’ attention to one of the snippets of video that police found on surveillance cameras in the area that he said confirms his suggestion that she was not an innocent bystander in the case. It shows two figures identified as Williams and Robinson walking quickly from the scene.
“She is following him,” Hobart said of Robinson. “She is going with him.” If she were an innocent bystander to the crime, she would not have gone with him, but would have run the other way, he suggested.
“The reason she didn’t is that she was up to her neck” in the crime.
Hobart acknowledged that Williams and Reidler were not the most upstanding of men, but he said they should be granted some consideration for testifying in court — even though they have already been sentenced to terms of 40 to 80 years and 20 to 40 years in state prison.
“They paid the price. They are facing serious jail time. Saleem could be 100 years old when he gets out of jail, which means he’s not getting out of jail. How good a deal was that?”
He also referenced Robinson’s disappearance after police informed her she was a suspect in the murder. She was not arrested until December, after police spent weeks hunting for her across multiple states.
“She fled from the scene, but she did more than flee. She went into hiding for three months. It tells you that she knows she is guilty,” he said.
In the end, Hobart turned his attention to the victim in the case, who had done nothing to warrant being attacked.
“There was a scared young person on the streets of Phoenixville that night, but it wasn’t the defendant,” he said, countering Donatoni’s argument that Robinson was an “outsider” pulled into the crime. “The scared young man was Selvin Lopez, who was outnumbered and outgunned by these three people.
“I ask you to remember that as he lay dying, three people a few blocks away were eating his food,” Hobart said.
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