BANGOR, Maine — The state says a Bangor teen accused of shooting to death a rival last year did so in cold blood, but the defense says he acted reasonably in response to heated confrontations between two groups of young men that escalated to the breaking point.
Assistant Attorney General Andrew Benson, who is prosecuting the case, made the first opening statement as the murder trial of Zachary Carr, 19, began Monday at the Penobscot Judicial Center. He said Carr shot an unarmed John “Bobby” Surles with a 9 mm handgun around 6 p.m. Jan. 27, 2010.
Carr is charged with intentional or knowing murder and adequate provocation manslaughter, and has pleaded not guilty. He has been held at the Penobscot County Jail since his arrest Jan. 29, 2010.
A defenseless Surles was “lying on the ground, with nothing in his hands, struggling to raise himself up off the ground when he was executed — literally executed — by Zachary Carr,” Benson told the jury, noting that the victim was shot in the chest and died a couple of days later at Eastern Maine Medical Center.
But defense attorneys F. David Walker IV and Thomas Matzilevich of Bangor said there are holes in the state’s case that include eyewitness testimony that differs from statements given to police directly after the shooting.
In his opening statement, Matzilevich said the violence between the two gangs of youths was ongoing, escalating and involved a number of dangerous weapons. The jury must decide “whether Zachary’s actions were justified or reasonable,” he said.
Benson said there is no doubt that “there was a good old-fashioned street brawl on Cumberland Street” between the rival groups in the minutes before the shooting. Friends of Surles were known as the Skaters, and those of Carr reportedly called themselves the Bloods.
The street fight occurred outside 62 Cumberland St. after Surles and his friends harassed one of Carr’s friends on the morning of Jan. 27, 2010, calling him names and throwing an egg at him, according to both Matzilevich and Benson. That afternoon the same youths also drove by the place where Carr was staying, 57 Cumberland St., made threats and had a baseball bat thrown at them, the lawyers said.
A fight between the two groups was arranged for that evening in the parking lot of a nearby funeral home, but when none of Carr’s friends showed up, Surles and his friends went to Carr’s residence again and made more threats using a cell phone, the defense attorney said.
“They were told if they didn’t come out, they would be burned out,” Matzilevich said. “John Surles’ friends were across the street and one of these people had what appeared to be a gas can.”
Surles arrived at Carr’s residence with fighting gloves and a red mop stick, but at least one of his friends had a pair of brass knuckles with a knife attached, he said.
Carr was armed with a handgun that he got from his father just a couple of hours beforehand, Benson said.
“When Bobby Surles and his friends came back, he went downstairs and shot Bobby Surles,” the prosecutor said of Carr.
After the gun somehow went off, the youths scattered and Carr ran into the nearby residence he shared with a number of his friends and said, “I didn’t mean to do it,” his attorney told jurors. “I don’t want him to die.”
Matzilevich said it’s true that his client listened to some bad advice and at first told police Surles came to the fight with the gun and it went off while they were wrestling for it, but he quickly “came to his senses, he came out of the panic, and told the truth.”
Before Monday’s snowstorm stopped court for the day, the prosecution presented five witnesses — an eyewitness to the shooting, two others who assisted Surles after he was shot, a man who lives across the street who had called police after the bat incident earlier in the day, and a paramedic.
James Finlayson, who lives on nearby Center Street, told the jury he was walking home when he heard the street brawl begin. He said he was about 100 feet away when he saw someone on the ground, propped up on his elbow, and one of those involved in the fight “reached out and pulled a handgun and then shot.”
But when Walker cross-examined him, Finlayson said he didn’t actually witness the shooting because he turned at the last second to look at someone backing up. He also said that he didn’t recall telling police the night of the shooting that “I think the kid was on the ground, but I’m not sure,” a direct quote Walker read from Finlayson’s police statement.
Walker asked Finlayson to lie on the courtroom floor in the manner of the victim to demonstrate to the jury what he saw, which he did.
The eyewitness said “the victim had gotten up and was stumbling down the street asking for help” and that “nobody was stopping for him.”
Finlayson testified that he motioned for Surles to cross the street to where he was standing and asked him who shot him.
“He repeated three times, Zach Carr,” he said.
Finlayson testified during direct examination by Benson that he didn’t see any weapons in possession of those fighting. But during Walker’s cross-examination, the defense attorney read from his police statement, which said he “saw at least 10 to 12 kids all with a weapon, bats, a knife or blade.”
Walker asked Finlayson if hearing his statement from a year ago jarred his memory, and he responded by saying, “No, it does not.”
Walker also asked if any of Surles’ friends attempted to help him after the shooting or were carrying any weapons. Finlayson said two came forward after he was lying on the ground bleeding profusely.
“The first one that approached, the young one, didn’t have anything,” he said. “The second one had a pair of brass knuckles with a knife attached.”
The second witness was Nicole Lovell of Garland Street, who was driving up Cumberland Street toward Center Street when she noticed the car in front of her swerve to avoid something.
Surles was walking in the street and lifted up his shirt to show he had been shot, she said. By the time she got to him, he “was lying face down” in the street, she testified. She used a blue blanket from her car to wrap him up and a man who lived in a nearby house, Prichard Clement, also provided a blanket and a lantern for light, he testified Monday.
Tim Greenlaw, who lives across the street from where Carr lived and who manages the property, testified Monday that he called police on the afternoon of Jan. 27 to report seeing four young people across the street throw a bat at a car full of other youths.
“I’ve been dealing with the chaos for months,” he said.
When police arrived they took a brick, a bat and a hammer, he said.
At around 6 p.m., he heard someone yelling for help and looked out his kitchen window “and I saw a boy getting beat,” Greenlaw said, adding that the boy was wearing a red jacket and was being hit in the head. “I ran down to help him and as soon as I opened my door I heard a gun go off.”
When he opened up the apartment building’s front door seconds later, he saw Surles holding his chest.
“I ran upstairs to call the paramedics and police,” he said.
The final prosecution witness on Monday was a Bangor Fire Department paramedic, Jim Fleming, who testified that Surles had “a gunshot wound just below his sternum,” diminished lung capacity and a contusion on his back when he examined him at the scene.
Monday’s snow postponed plans to have the jury visit the scene where Surles was gunned down last year and also shortened the first day of Carr’s murder trial.
Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy adjourned the trial at about 1 p.m. and said the jury’s viewing of the scene and the apartment where Carr lived would likely take place first thing Tuesday.
Several of Surles’ family members, including his grandparents who raised him, and a dozen friends sat on the right side of the courtroom on the second floor of the Penobscot Judicial Center.
About 10 of Carr’s friends and family members sat on the left side of the courtroom, behind the defense table. His mother, Holly Carr, said she and others are not allowed in the courtroom because they are sequestered and may have to testify later.
If convicted of murder, Carr faces 25 years to life in prison. If convicted on the manslaughter charge, he faces a maximum of 30 years in prison.
Benson described his case as a puzzle that he will put together for the jury over the next week.
“Why did this all happen?” Benson asked during his opening statement. “It seems to come down to stupid kids doing stupid things. The two groups didn’t like each other.”
The trial is expected to last five or six days.