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Jury convicts Buffalo man of slaying convicted arsonist on Rother Avenue

After three days of deliberation, an Erie County Court jury found a Buffalo man guilty of second-degree murder in the shooting death of a convicted arsonist who was awaiting sentencing in another shooting.

Antone Herrod, 32, admitted on the witness stand that he shot Christopher Pratt, 25, in the early-morning hours of Dec. 1, 2014, during a chance meeting in the street near a drug house on Rother Avenue. Herrod contended that the shooting was justified.

He testified that Pratt threatened him and his former girlfriend because of her previous cooperation with the District Attorney’s Office, and that he thought Pratt was heading to his nearby SUV to get a gun. Before Pratt got to the vehicle, Herrod had retrieved a loaded rifle from the trunk of his girlfriend’s car and fired two shots, hitting Pratt once.

Defense attorney Paul Dell pointed out in his opening and closing statements that Pratt was known to be violent, that he had admitted in court to shooting one man – the case for which he was scheduled to be sentenced – and that he was suspected in at least two other shootings. Herrod reiterated in his testimony that it was “known on the street” that Pratt always carried a gun.

However, investigators didn’t find any weapon on Pratt or in his SUV, and none of the four witnesses at the scene – including Herrod – testified that they saw a gun.

There was no testimony that anyone else could have taken a weapon away from Pratt. Herrod, his girlfriend and another woman who had been riding with Pratt testified that they immediately drove away from the scene. Police officers on regular patrol found the mortally wounded man a few minutes later, even before anyone reported a shooting, and also did not see a gun. In fact, one officer testified, they initially though he may have been drunk and passed out in the street, since his labored breathing sounded like he was snoring.

With no weapon seen and no explicit threat heard beyond Pratt’s alleged statement to “Watch this,” Assistant District Attorney John Feroleto disputed Herrod’s contention that the shooting was an action of last resort.

He also pointed to the fact that none of the witnesses called police or came forward to explain what happened. Instead, Herrod left Buffalo.

Herrod said it was because of threats being made by Pratt’s brothers, but prosecutors noted that he also knew that the police were looking for him.

He was arrested more than two months later in Georgia.

The jury was divided for three days on its verdict and the frustrated panel corresponded regularly with Judge David Foley, who was presiding over his first jury trial since he became a judge in January.

Tuesday morning, the jurors indicated they felt hopelessly deadlocked at 9-3 after a total of less than five hours of deliberations. Later, they shifted to a 10-2 split, but notified the judge that two on the panel were being unreasonable and focusing on “conspiracy theories” rather than the facts. One note also said that everyone said they would not be changing their minds.

It also was discovered that, despite judicial instructions not to talk about, read or investigate anything to do with the case when they went home at night, one juror was doing independent online research on the law surrounding justifiable homicide.

If Foley ever felt flustered, it didn’t show in court. He read and reread for the jurors the law regarding justification, and each time they said they were deadlocked – at 9-3, 10-2 and, on Wednesday afternoon, at 11-1 – he acknowledged that deciding on a verdict was not an easy task, encouraged them to keep going and sent them back to consider the evidence again.

After the verdict, acting District Attorney Michael J. Flaherty joined others in commending the judge for his handling of what turned out to be a far from routine trial.

Herrod, who has one prior felony conviction on a weapons charge, was stoic Thursday when the jury finally delivered its verdict. He faces a possible sentence of 15 years to life up to 25 years to life when he returns before Foley on May 18.