By Tom Davidson
Herald Staff Writer
MERCER COUNTY —
Devine Anthonio Campbell told two girls who came to watch his court appearance Monday that he’s enjoying watching the legal process play itself out.
“I love this stuff,” Campbell told the girls.
Campbell, 18 – he turns 19 on Saturday – of Farrell has been an inmate at the Mercer County Jail since January 2012.
He and Joshua Stewart, 20, also of Farrell, have been jailed because police believe they are the men behind a series of crimes that culminated in the Dec. 30, 2011, killing of Farrell bar-owner William “Billy” Basilone Jr.
Campbell was in court Monday because of his trial on charges he was the triggerman in the Dec. 20, 2011, robbery of Basil Ramahi at B&M Market, 644 Wallis Ave., Farrell.
He traded in Mercer County orange for a dark collared shirt and slacks as he sat at the defense table next to his lawyers, J. Jarrett K. Whalen and Dustin Cole, who said Sunday they were prepared to defend him in a trial.
But Mercer County District Attorney Robert G. Kochems had other ideas. Kochems presented Mercer County Common Pleas Court Judge Christopher J. St. John with three requests over the course of the business day Monday.
Each of them was denied, but Kochems’ intent to appeal those decisions to state Superior Court effectively granted his aim to delay the case while a federal probe into the crimes Campbell is accused of is completed next month.
“There are too many ifs,” St. John said in denying Kochems’ quest for a continuance of the trial, or to “nolle prosequi” – in English, to dismiss the charges in the case – because federal sentencing guidelines would be stiffer than those set by the state.
“I have no specifics, nor am I entitled to the specifics of their investigation,” Kochems said.
The feds became involved in “late June,” said Kochems, when he asked for their help to address a general “gun problem” in the Shenango Valley that has resulted in a series of gun-related crimes.
Ramahi, who is the alleged victim in the robbery case that was before the court, told prosecutors he’d testified before a federal grand jury in Pittsburgh a few weeks ago.
St. John spoke with Ramahi in court by telephone to determine the store owner’s position on dropping the robbery and assault charges filed to avenge the crime against him.
The judge and assistant district attorney Lauren Hackett attempted to explain the differences between a local or federal prosecution to Ramahi, who said he wanted a trial.
That trial would have began in earnest today after St. John denied Kochems’ motions.
But that wasn’t the end of the court hearing.
After a nearly three-hour break for lunch and transport of Campbell to and from the Findley Township jail, an evidentiary hearing was held to determine if and how a state police ballistics report would be used at trial.
The report links three shell casings from the B&M robbery with the seven casings found at the scene of the Basilone shooting.
Authorities don’t have the gun that fired the shots, and they believe Stewart was the triggerman in the Basilone murder, while Campbell was the shooter in the B&M case.
The ballistics report would bolster the credibility of a jailhouse informant that prosecutors admit is a “corrupt source,” according to Hackett.
But St. John wanted the prosecution to explain how they plan to introduce the report in the B&M case without prejudicing a jury by mentioning revealing details about the Basilone murder.
“This case has a lot of different twists to it,” Kochems said at one point.
St. John sided with Whalen, who argued that Kochems hadn’t met the burden of the procedural rules of evidence to admit the report.
“It only establishes it’s the same gun,” Whalen argued, adding that the information from the jailhouse informant, Cedric Boyd, doesn’t solidly implicate Campbell in the B&M shooting.
“I think this is a close call, but in balance, I can’t grant the motion,” St. John told the lawyers.
“It still might come in under some other theory,” the judge said of the ballistics report.
The ruling was the third that went in the defense’s favor Monday.
“In light of the court rulings, the commonwealth’s appealing,” Kochems said.
The appeal, expected to be filed today in Superior Court, effectively does what Kochems aimed for from the outset: to delay the case indefinitely.
Things come to a “grinding halt” now that it’s under appeal, Whalen said after court recessed.
It “could be months” before the higher court issues a decision on the matters.
Kochems said he intends to appeal “all three” of St. John’s decisions to the higher court.
The hearing, which stretched over the course of business hours on Monday, was the latest in more than a year’s worth of hearings involving Campbell and Stewart since the final two weeks of December 2011, when a series of robberies and shootings happened in Sharon and Farrell that were linked to the men.
The most serious of the charges the pair face are first- and second-degree murder stemming from Basilone killing.
Stewart may be tried on those charges in September, and presumably Campbell would be tried after that, according to Whalen.
Three other cases that were part of the crime spree or the subsequent time they’ve spent in jail have been resolved:
• On June 28, Campbell was sentenced to 3 to 18 months for simple assault and 6 months probation for theft in connection with an attack on another inmate at Mercer County Jail.
• On May 16, Campbell was acquitted of two gun charges, making terroristic threats and simple assault, in connection with a Dec. 18, 2011, incident on East Budd Street in Sharon.
In that case, a Sharon woman was terrorized by a young man who pulled a gun on her after tossing a half-eaten stromboli at her when she was walking home from work.
Campbell wasn’t that man, a jury said when they rendered a not-guilty verdict.
• On May 21, Stewart was found guilty of two counts of robbery and a charge of making terroristic threats for the Dec. 29 robbery of a Sharon man outside his King Street home.
There have been three other court appearances where a plea deal appeared to be reached on the murder charges that ultimately fell apart.
That spurred Mercer County Common Pleas Court President Judge Thomas R. Dobson to order on Aug. 2 that no pleas will be accepted other than second-degree murder with life imprisonment in connection with the Basilone killing and that plea must be entered before Dobson, according to a court filing on Aug. 5.
That’s fair, Whalen said.
“You have to feel bad for the family (Basilone’s). They keep being dragged into court for no reason,” Whalen said.