By Tom Davidson
Herald Staff Writer
MERCER — Joshua Lee Stewart killed William Basilone in a botched robbery Dec. 30, 2011, outside Basilone’s Roemer Boulevard bar in Farrell, a jury decided Tuesday.
The jury convicted Stewart, 20, of first- and second-degree murder and two counts each of robbery and conspiracy to commit robbery.
It took the all-white panel of seven women and five men less than two hours to decide the case Tuesday evening.
The trial, which is the highest-profile case tried in Mercer County in this century, included three days of testimony from the prosecution, led by Mercer County District Attorney Robert G. Kochems, and an afternoon’s worth of summations by Kochems and court-appointed defense lawyer James Goodwin before jurors got the case about 4:40 p.m. Tuesday.
Goodwin did not present a defense. He had no obligation to prove anything during the trial, as the burden of proof rests with prosecutors, St. John advised the jury repeatedly.
Jurors arrived at a verdict by 6:40 p.m.
“There aren’t too many cases that last this long in Mercer County,” Judge Christopher St. John told jurors.
Sentencing wasn’t set Tuesday. Stewart was also facing the lesser charge of third-degree murder, which was moot because of the guilty verdicts on the more-serious murder charges. He will likely spend the rest of his life behind bars.
Muted gasps of relief were let out by members of Basilone’s family as the verdict was read. St. John had lauded them for keeping their composure during the trial before the jury was brought into the courtroom, then reminded them to keep up the decorum during the verdict, which they did.
None of Stewart’s family was present for the verdict, although a bench of seven friends and family members did listen to closing arguments earlier in the afternoon.
Stewart appeared unrepentant as sheriff’s deputies led him out of the courtroom, and he appeared to glare at the Basilones as he was returned to jail.
“I’m satisfied with the verdict. I’m very pleased,” Kochems said afterward.
“It’s just sad for everybody,” Goodwin said.
“It’s sad for the Basilones,” he said of the case.
Goodwin and assistant public defender Autumn Johnson mounted a vigorous defense of Stewart, arguing against Kochems and assistant district attorney Lauren Hackett as they attempted to introduce the trove of evidence in the case.
Prosecutors initially wanted to use evidence of Stewart’s connection to a spree of other robberies he and Devine Campbell are alleged to have committed in November and December 2011. Campbell, 19, faces the same charged in the Basilone slaying but will be tried separately.
Those cases weren’t mentioned during the trial because St. John ruled they couldn’t, but he did allow the testimony of a jailhouse snitch that Goodwin termed “corrupt and polluted.”
Stewart wore a white open-collared, long-sleeved shirt in his final hours in front of the jury.
“I will not testify,” Stewart told St. John before the jury was called in to hear closing arguments.
The courtroom was the fullest that it had been at any point in the trial. One side of benches was filled with Basilone’s friends and family members and on the other side, members of Stewart’s family and a few friends, along with the defense lawyers for Campbell.
As he searched for the words to sum up the case for the jury, Goodwin said it was challenging to succinctly make sense of the case.
“I had the feeling of being overwhelmed,” he told the jury.
Then he thought of the jurors who’d listened to three full days of testimony and the members of Basilone’s family who were forced to relive that day.
ÒMisery might love company, but it doesn’t help come up with a closing argument,Ó he said.
The case breaks down into three parts, he said.
First, the undisputed fact that Basilone was ”senselessly gunned down,” and also that at the time he was killed he had cash in his pocket and jewelry that wasn’t stolen.
Second, Stewart lives near Basilone’s, just a few blocks from the bar on Roemer Boulevard, and walks by the establishment frequently.
Third, and the point of emphasis for Goodwin, is that the only direct evidence that tied Stewart to the crime came from “two corrupt and polluted sources,” he said.
“Maybe is not beyond a reasonable doubt. Maybe is not justice,” Goodwin argued.
“This case is not about what happened. It’s about who did it,” he said.
The jury believed Stewart was the man.
They saw more than an hour’s worth of surveillance video footage from outside BasiloneÕs that night that depicted Stewart, Campbell and Tylor Kalenic, another alleged co-conspirator who hasn’t been charged.
In that footage, Stewart is wearing a gray Champion hoodie and jeans.
A pink “D-ring” is visible beneath the hoodie attached to a belt loop of the jeans.
Stewart is wearing the same outfit in a cell phone “selfie” he posted in October 2011 to the social media site Facebook.
Linking that picture to the surveillance video was the case’s “defining moment,” Southwest Mercer County Regional Police Detective Sgt. Andrew Thomas.
Thomas was the lead investigator in the case, which has dragged on for almost two years since Stewart and Campbell were arrested on Jan. 4, 2012.
Kochems asked jurors to use their common sense to help decide the case.
“You don’t sit around and guess. You look at what the facts are,” Kochems said.
While Kalenic and the jailhouse informant may not be perfect witnesses, their stories corroborate one another, Kochems said.
“Both came up with the same language,” he said, referencing the desire on the part of Stewart, Campbell and Kalenic to “hit a lick” that night.
The jury also watch the trio on video and saw them case Basilone’s.
Kalenic, the “young buck” who said he was invited to commit the crime by the other men, is obviously new to the game. On the video from inside Basilone’s when he goes in under the guise of ordering a pizza to find out how many people were in there, “he’s doing everything but break-dancing on the bar” and unwittingly attracts attention to himself.
“He’s clueless,” Kochems said of Kalenic. “He’s 15 years old (at the time the crime occurred.) He knows there’s two guys out there that know he knows they killed somebody.”
When Stewart is pictured later in the surveillance video, he coolly walks in and gauges the situation- while also taking the precaution of wearing a different sweatshirt into the bar, Kochems noted.
That Stewart posts “selfies” on Facebook wearing his uniform of choice: jeans and the gray Champion hoodie, along with the D-ring that helped police crack the case, shows that Stewart’s proud to be a criminal.
“This is on Facebook. He advertises,” Kochems said.
Stewart and Campbell were committed to robbing Basilone’s that night, Kochems said, noting they stuck around the outside of the bar, lying in wait, for more than a half-hour after Kalenic says he left them when he got cold feet.
Kochems also advised the jury to look at the “big picture” of the case.
“Devine Campbell and Josh Stewart were not satisfied with Kalenic’s report as a spy,” Kochems said, referencing Kalenic’s dance in the bar.
That’s why Stewart also cased the place, he said.
ÒThey don’t believe the young bull knows what he’s doing,” Kochems said.
Kalenic left the others in a moment of reason, Kochems said.
“Why? Because even a blind young bull finds hay every once in a while,” he said.
Kalenic became frightened when he realized Stewart and Campbell were “for real,” Kochems said.
“This was a real robbery,” and not some plan hatched over the course of a day spent wandering around Farrell.
“If something goes wrong, they lay it on him,” Kochems said, referring to Kalenic.
“And something goes wrong; they kill Will Basilone, and they lay it on him,” Kochems said.
Stewart and Campbell are linked as partners, and Kalenic was merely a younger boy they mentored from time to time.
“They’re so close that in prison they convinced their brothers to get girls pregnant” to encourage the girls to help them as alibi witnesses, Kochems said.
“This is tight,” he said of their relationship.
Stewart and Campbell each have brothers who struck up relationships with the sisters who drove the car that picked up Stewart, Campbell and Kalenic after the murder away from the scene of the crime.
The sisters, Cierra and Olivia Vincent, gave conceived babies with Eric Stewart and “Dre” Campbell after the murder, Cierra Vincent testified last week.
Much of the testimony heard in Stewart’s trial will likely be repeated when Campbell’s case is heard. That case is set for October’s trial term.