Guilty plea in police shootout
By Caitlin Davis, Senior Staff Writer
Mar 4, 2014, 15:31
PETERSBURG — After four men were arrested back in January of last year for attempted capital murder of two Petersburg police officers, only one Hopewell man walked away with a guilty plea.
On Jan. 9, 2013, police say four men, Andre Cordell Mason, of Hopewell, Chaz Jherron Brown, of Hopewell, Bennie Young, of Petersburg, and Darius Harris, of Hopewell, were involved in a shootout with Petersburg officers. The incident began around 11:47 p.m. and ran into the early morning hours of Jan. 10. Police say the four men were riding around Petersburg in a dark-colored SUV.
At the same time, two officers were on a call on South Crater Road and heard gun shots fired. While searching the area for the source of the gunshots, a call came over the radio for reports of a suspicious vehicle.
The police officers spotted the SUV and began to pursue the vehicle. The unmarked police vehicle, turned around and got behind the SUV, at which time the SUV slowed down and an occupant began firing shots at the car.
The officers inside the vehicle returned fire and began to chase the vehicle onto Interstate 95 and then back into the city once the SUV exited onto Wagner Road. At Wagner Road, the SUV crossed the median and ran into a second police vehicle. Three suspects in the vehicle were apprehended at the scene, except the driver, later identified by police as Mason, who fled but was arrested a day later.
One of the passengers in the car, Harris, appeared in court on Monday morning in Petersburg. Harris pleaded guilty to the charge of shooting a firearm out of vehicle and the charge of shooting at law enforcement. The other four charges, two charges of attempted capital murder of a law enforcement officer and two charges of use of a firearm, were nolle prossed, or set aside.
Judge Pamela Baskervill sentenced Harris to 10 years with 9 suspended on the charge of shooting at law enforcement as the guidelines state the charge must carry a mandatory sentence of a year in prison.
On the other charge of shooting out of a vehicle, Harris was sentenced to 10 years, with all 10 suspended. The judge also put Harris on indefinite supervised probation for both charges.
Harris has already served a year in jail awaiting trial.
Brown, one of the other men charged in the case, walked away from a jury trial in Petersburg last week in which the jury came back with a verdict of not guilty. Cassandra Conover, Petersburg Commonwealth Attorney, said the case against the two men was tough.
Conover said one of the issues with the Brown trial was a question of whether or not the jury was convinced the men knew they were shooting at police officers, as the officers were driving an unmarked car and the lights had not been activated when the car approached the SUV.
“There were shots fired but officers could not visibly tell who was shooting,” Conover said the day following the Harris trial.
In the courtroom on Monday, the commonwealth presented evidence in the case against Harris, which included items being thrown from the SUV before it collided with the other police vehicle on Wagner Road.
One of the items thrown out was .22 cartridges and Conover said there were no .22 weapons that were recovered. The only weapon that was recovered from the scene was a MAC-10 semi-automatic.
“Darius made the statement he didn’t know it was the police,” Conover said. “... The case against him was circumstantial. We knew he was in the car, we knew he was shooting but he was shooting before the police activated their lights.”
There were many different interpretations of the incident that the judge and the jury could have taken, Conover said. A video reenactment of the incident was used in the case against Brown, but it still did not paint a clear enough picture for the jury.
“It was a hard case,” Conover said. “My officers were being shot at ... but in the end they felt there wasn’t enough to prove he was the one shooting.”
Conover said the jury in the Brown case deliberated for almost three hours before returning a verdict.
The only thing that is certain in the case Conover said, is that Young could not have been the one firing shots from the SUV as all shots came from the passenger’s side and Young was sitting behind the driver and the window did not work. Another snag in the cases is that it was unclear if shots were coming from the front or the rear of the vehicle.
Meanwhile, two of men in the case, Mason and Brown, have been charged in Hopewell in another case. Both men were indicted Dec. 11, 2013, by a grand jury on charges of murder and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony.
The killing in Hopewell dated back to Dec. 3, 2012. Around 10:35 p.m., two men were shot in the 1500 block of Piper Square Drive, in the Piper Square public housing complex. One victim, Morris D. Flowers Jr., 46, died from his wounds. A second victim, Lamonta Ellis, 30, from Spring Grove, was also shot, and he was flown to Virginia Commonwealth Medical Center. He has since recovered from his injuries.
At the time, police said two or possibly three males dressed in all black wearing black masks opened fired on the victims in the breezeway between apartments. They left the scene on foot toward the back gate of Piper Square towards Old Iron Court. A vehicle was possibly parked just outside the gate on Old Iron Court.
Mason has also faced drug charges in the past, according to online court records. He was charged in Hopewell with drug possession in 2007. He was also charged with distribution of cocaine in 2010 and was sentenced to 1 year and 1 month in prison. He was also charged with drug possession in Prince George in 2011 and sentenced to 1 year in prison.