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Judge sets aside jury verdict that found man guilty of killing Chesterfield teen

Posted at 1:10 PM, Jul 13, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-14 07:48:58-04

CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. -- A judge in Chesterfield County set aside a jury's verdict that found a man guilty of killing a Chesterfield teen for stealing a car belonging to the man's girlfriend in 2019.

After he was indicted for the murder of 18-year-old Bryson Mitchell, Demetrius Roots, Jr. entered a plea of not guilty and requested a trial by jury.

Mitchell was found shot in a crashed car in the early hours of September 26, 2019.

The jury found Roots guilty of second-degree murder -- and other related charges -- after a three-day trial in April, according to court documents. They also completed a sentencing.

The defendant moved to set aside the jury's verdict, claiming the jury did not consider whether there was sufficient evidence to support a guilty verdict on each of the offenses Roots faced, court documents stated.

A hearing for the motion was held on June 28 and the court sided with the defendant, therefore setting aside the jury's verdict.

Chesterfield Circuit Judge David E. Johnson stated in a July 8 decision "reasonable inference ends and speculation, supposition and suspicion begin. The defendant's occupancy of the car and his resulting proximity to the crime scene are insufficient by themselves to support a conviction of murder in the second degree."

Johnson did, however, say there was enough evidence to put Roots and his girlfriend, Samira Tarabay-Whitfield, at the crime scene based on cellphone tracking records.

Prosecutors filed to have the judge reconsider, reiterating in court documents that the evidence from the cellphone location data put the Roots and Tarabay-Whitfield at the crime scene at the exact time surveillance video captured Mitchell being shot.

The Commonwealth's rebuttal to the ruling cited a precedent, stating, "when there is evidence in support of the verdict, the Court is to not overrule it and substitute its own judgment even if its opinion might differ from that of the jury.'"

They added this should have played out in the Virginia Court of Appeals -- the natural progression for a case like this.

Nevertheless, the prosecutors' motion to reconsider was denied and they believe Roots will be acquitted of all charges.

Chesterfield County's Commonwealth's Attorney and police chief are both criticizing the judge's decision to set aside the guilty verdict.

"I am outraged, disgusted, and angered at this decision," Col. Jeffrey Katz, Chesterfield County's Chief of Police, said.

"Never before have I seen a judge complete set aside a jury's guilty verdict," Stacey Davenport, Chesterfield County's Commonwealth's Attorney, said.

Court documents and prosecutors allege that Mitchell had stolen Roots' girlfriend's car, chased after him and then that Roots shot him.

However, Roots' attorney argues that they failed to prove that he was the only perpetrator and that the jury only convicted him through speculation and conjecture.

He said that while the jury could have inferred that he was in the area, based on cellphone data, there is no concrete evidence.

"There is no evidence that this jury saw or heard or could have considered that put my client in possession of any firearm at the scene during the time. So, not who fired the shot, but there's no evidence my client even possessed a firearm," Steven Novey, the defense attorney, said.

In a 12-page written decision, Johnson agreed with that argument and said while Roots was shown to be in the area, "beyond establishing that fact, the Commonwealth's evidence, in the face of the presumption of innocence, is legally insufficient to prove more than a strong suspicion that the Defendant shot and killed Mr. Mitchell."

On Tuesday, Davenport said that if he felt that way, he shouldn't have let the jury decide. She added that undermining the jury's decision instead of allowing it to go to a higher court sets a dangerous precedent.

"To begin to undermine the validity and sanctity of a jury's verdict is to begin slowly eroding the American judicial system as we know it," Davenport said.

The police chief also implied this was a political decision as Johnson is up for reappointment next year. However, Roots' attorney disagrees with those characterizations.

"He didn't usurp the jury's opinion and use his own opinion to usurp the juries. He based it on the law and the Supreme Court's precedent and he followed the law," Novey said.

CBS 6 Legal Analyst Todd Stone says this case relied on circumstantial evidence, which can be strong, and while Roots was placed at the scene, what was missing was what he did or did not do.

"If the evidence is not sufficient to establish what he actually did, then, you know, that's when a judge steps in and acts in this manner. And the law supports that," Stone said.

The following court documents were shared:

Verdict Sheet
Roots Defense Motion and Argument
Roots CA Rebuttal
Judge's Ruling
CA Motion to Reconsider