Last-minute plea deal heads off 2nd mistrial in 2016 fatal shooting

Last-minute plea deal heads off 2nd mistrial in 2016 fatal shooting

URBANA — Heading off the possibility of another mistrial, the Champaign County State's Attorney's Office made an offer to an Urbana man accused of first-degree murder to plead guilty to a lesser offense that allows him to be released from prison in about 15 years.

Around 7 p.m. Wednesday, after a jury had deliberated on the fate of Tyrone Franklin Jr., 25, for several hours and indicated they were having trouble reaching a verdict, Franklin pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the Nov. 26, 2016, fatal shooting of Robert Lee Brown, 21, of Urbana.

He was sentenced to 20 years in prison for that.

Franklin also pleaded guilty to unlawful possession of a weapon by a felon, admitting that on Jan. 11, 2017, when he was arrested on the murder charge, he possessed a gun.

With prior convictions for attempted armed robbery and aggravated battery, Franklin is not allowed to have weapons. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison for that, to be served after the sentence for Mr. Brown's killing.

He is eligible for day-for-day good time on the 30 years.

The agreement was hammered out by Assistant State's Attorney Scott Larson, who prosecuted Franklin's first murder trial in February that ended in a hung jury, and Public Defender Janie Miller-Jones.

In the second-degree murder charge, the state alleged that Franklin acted under a "sudden and intense passion" when he shot Mr. Brown in a house in the 700 block of East University Avenue, Urbana, while the men were at a gathering celebrating the life of Franklin's slain half-brother, Zachary Gray, 22, of Urbana.

Mr. Gray had been fatally shot on Nov. 10, 2016, in east Urbana, and was buried earlier the day that Mr. Brown was killed. No one has been arrested in that shooting. Larson said Franklin was reacting to a statement by Mr. Brown that showed disrespect to Mr. Gray.

State's Attorney Julia Rietz called the plea agreement a "satisfactory conclusion, given what we had to work with."

"My prosecutors and the Urbana Police Department did the best they could with the evidence we had. We had no cooperating witnesses this time," she said, repeating a familiar refrain with many of Champaign and Urbana's homicide investigations of the past few years.

Despite about two dozen people being present at the house where Mr. Brown was killed, the state had the testimony of only one witness who identified Franklin as the shooter.

Others put Franklin at the house, and some said he had a gun, but only Adrian Dorsey testified, in Franklin's first trial, that Franklin had used the gun to kill Mr. Brown, believing that Mr. Brown was affiliated with a group responsible for the death of Mr. Gray.

Even Dorsey was unwilling to be present this week to repeat his statement. After his testimony in February, Dorsey told Urbana police he had been threatened and would not show up for Franklin's retrial.

Larson argued that as an "unavailable" witness, Dorsey's testimony in the first trial could be played for the jury in the retrial. Over the objection of Miller-Jones, Judge Roger Webber allowed that.

In addition to Dorsey's testimony, Larson also had jurors listen to a tape-recorded phone call made by Kevin Akins from an Illinois prison to friends in Urbana who were at the party, including Franklin and Mr. Brown.

The jury heard the tape during testimony, again during Larson's closing argument, and again during their deliberations.

In it, Akins is heard to counsel Franklin to be cautious about any retaliatory measures he might take to avenge Mr. Gray's death.

"Remember, a crowd will tell on you, bro," Akins told Franklin. "I'd strap up as many as I can."

In his closing argument, Larson said there was no mistaking that the two men were talking about retaliating with guns. Franklin said in the call that he has a gun in his hand at all times after his half-brother's death, Larson pointed out.

"The first person he encounters on the wrong side is Robert Brown," Larson said.

On that same call, when the phone was handed to Mr. Brown, he told Akins he wasn't affiliated with any group.

"'I be by myself,'" Larson quoted the shooting victim.

"He's saying I'm not taking sides. But that doesn't matter to Tyrone Franklin," Larson said.

Other evidence that Larson argued tied Franklin to the shooting was that the 9 mm bullets used to kill Mr. Brown came from the same gun that police learned had been used in a shooting on Ivanhoe Way on Oct. 23, 2016.

A female witness told police that Franklin took part in the shootout in the 1300 block of Ivanhoe that resulted in a van, but no people, being hit by gunfire, despite more than 70 shots having been fired from seven guns. That same woman denied at trial having told police that, even though her recorded statement was played for the jury.

Miller-Jones argued that the jury should not rely on Larson to interpret for them what they heard in the tape-recorded phone call from Akins to his friends at the party, a call that ended after Mr. Brown was shot.

The last thing heard on the call was a woman screaming "Tyrone," which Larson said likely meant someone was reacting to him shooting Mr. Brown.

Miller-Jones disagreed.

"You decide the truth," she told the jurors.

She also argued that there was plenty of reasonable doubt as to whether Franklin fired the fatal shots given the confusion in the crowded house.

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