After taking more than a year to get underway, testimony is moving swiftly in the murder trial of a man accused of the 2014 shooting death of a convicted felon who was free on bail while awaiting sentencing in his own assault case.
After opening statements Thursday morning, prosecutors presented six witnesses before resting their case against Antone Herrod Thursday afternoon.
Herrod, 31, is accused of shooting Christopher Pratt, 25, once in the back after the two men argued on Rother Avenue in the early-morning hours of Dec. 1, 2014.
A month earlier, Pratt had pleaded guilty to first-degree assault for shooting a man on July 5, 2013 during an argument over a dice game. Pratt’s victim, who was 32 at the time, was left permanently blinded due to the severe loss of blood from his bullet wounds. Pratt also had a prior felony conviction for attempted arson and had been considered a suspect in at least two other shootings.
However, prosecutor James R. Gardner said in his opening statement, Pratt was not armed or a threat to anyone the night he was killed.
“He spent the last hours of his life driving around with a prostitute and getting high,” Gardner told the jury in Erie County Court.
Pratt allegedly was on Rother Street a little before 3 a.m. the night he was killed because his newfound companion was going to see someone there about getting more drugs. Herrod unexpectedly showed up at the same place with his girlfriend – a woman with whom Pratt had a confrontational past – and an argument ensued in the street between the two men. Then Pratt walked away, Gardner said, and his back was turned when Herrod got a long-barreled gun out of the trunk of his car and shot Pratt in the back before driving away.
“This defendant didn’t leave any DNA behind. But there were two eyewitnesses,” Gardner said.
Those witnesses – the woman who was riding around with Pratt and a friend of hers who lived on Rother Avenue – both testified Thursday.
Jessica Fero told the jury she met Pratt for the first time that day, when he picked her up on a corner. He told her his name was “Mike” and invited her to join him to drink and get high. After initially turning him down, she took him up on the offer later in the evening. At that time, Fero, said she was living off benefit checks and supplementing that income by working as a prostitute.
That was how she knew Herrod, she testified. “Tone,” as he was known, would refer clients to her and, in exchange, she would use the money to buy drugs from him. She said she was looking for Herrod that night when she and Pratt wound up in front of Francine Truitt’s house on Rother – a place Fero and Herrod both used to hang out.
From Fero’s testimony, it appeared the fatal encounter between the men was random and a surprise to all involved. Fero knew Herrod and his girlfriend, Yasmine Hall, who was with him that night. What she didn’t know was that Hall knew Pratt – she had identified him as the shooter in a 2013 assault (not the one for which he was convicted) and blamed him for what she said was a retaliatory shooting a year later that left her mother, Tara Hall, paralyzed.
Yasmine Hall never showed up in court to testify against Pratt in the one case, and charges were dropped. No arrests ever were made in the shooting of Tara Hall.
The bad blood, however, appears to have lingered.
Truitt, the woman who Fero was going to see that night, testified that shouting in the street woke her up and she came out to see what was going on. In mostly short yes or no answers, Truitt said she saw Fero arguing with “a gentleman” she didn’t know and that “Tone,” who was in a second car, intervened and asked what was going on. Truitt said at one point Pratt “flipped” and took a swing at Herrod before heading toward his car while saying “Watch what I’m going to do.”
Then, she said, Herrod went for his gun in the trunk, fired two shots and Pratt went down.
In his opening statement, defense attorney Paul Dell said this would be only one version of what happened that night – a night that was tragic for all involved. Dell told the jury that Yasmine Hall knew all too well what Pratt was capable of and that the couple had reason to fear that Pratt was going to harm them when he headed back to his car.
“Antone Herrod may not have been an angel, but he did what he had to that night,” is how Dell put it.
The defense presents its case when the trial resumes Friday morning. Herrod and Hall are expected to testify.