Public Safety

Trial move sought for man charged in Cedar Rapids smoke shop shooting

Social media comments on news articles inflammatory and prejudicial, defense says

Andre Richardson (center) reviews notes with defense attorney Peter Persaud during hearings on change of venue and suppression of evidence in Linn County District Court in Cedar Rapids on Friday, Oct. 25, 2019. Richardson is charged with two counts of first-degree murder in the shooting deaths of Royal Abram and Matrell Johnson in Cedar Rapids in May. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Andre Richardson (center) reviews notes with defense attorney Peter Persaud during hearings on change of venue and suppression of evidence in Linn County District Court in Cedar Rapids on Friday, Oct. 25, 2019. Richardson is charged with two counts of first-degree murder in the shooting deaths of Royal Abram and Matrell Johnson in Cedar Rapids in May. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — The attorney for a man charged in the fatal shooting of two teens in May outside a Cedar Rapids smoke shop wants to move the trial out of Linn County.

If the trial is moved, it would give Andre Richardson, 26, an opportunity to have a fair hearing and wouldn’t prejudice the prosecution, Johnson County Public Defender Peter Persaud argued during a hearing Friday.

The defense exhibits submitted to the court show “inflammatory” comments on social media that stemmed from numerous news articles on the case.

Persaud didn’t argue that news coverage of the shooting and Richardson’s arrest was inaccurate or inflammatory, instead focusing on the social media comments about those articles.

Many of the comments assumed Richardson — as a black man with a gun — was from Chicago and that he was guilty. They also brought up the death penalty, which is not an option under Iowa law, as an appropriate punishment.

Persaud, appointed as the defense lawyer after the Linn County Public Defender’s Office said it had a conflict in the case, argued any article written on this case will live forever on the internet and link back to previous coverage, along with mentions of other shootings in the community.

He said there would be no harm to use an “abundance of caution” by moving the trial — like to Polk County, he recommended.

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Sixth Judicial District Judge Ian Thornhill questioned if “it cut both ways.” In the digital age, it’s likely people in other counties could just as easily have read the news coverage, he said.

“We have to try it somewhere,” Persaud said. “But it’s more targeted or saturated here.”

Assistant Linn County Attorney Cory Speth said mere exposure to news accounts doesn’t warrant a change of venue. He noted there were many online commenters who “pushed back” against those who were racial and prejudicial, and others who were off topic.

Speth asked the judge to consider several cases that didn’t receive changes of venue because the amount of publicity received didn’t “rise to a presumption of prejudice” or the news coverage was accurate.

The defense also asked that one statement from Richardson to police not be allowed at trial because it was made after he requested a lawyer.

Cedar Rapids police investigator Chip Joecken testified that Richardson signed a waiver of Miranda rights to talk with police when arrested June 2. But then he asked for a lawyer.

Joecken said he stopped questioning him about the fatal shooting but did ask if anyone had informed him of the charges. Richardson said no, and Joecken told him and asked if he understood them.

Richardson said “Sounds about right,” Joecken said. Nothing more was asked.

Sarah Hradek, Richardson’s other attorney, argued that Richardson’s answer shouldn’t be allowed both because he asked for a lawyer and because there’s nothing in the law that requires an officer to make sure the defendant understands the charges.

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Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden said the officer did what he was “legally required” to do — advise a defendant of the charges. Joecken may have gone farther asking if he understood, but he wasn’t asking him to make an incriminating statement.

Judge Thornhill took the issues under advisement and will issue a written ruling later.

Richardson is charged with two counts each of first-degree murder, attempted murder and willful injury causing serious injury, and one count each of intimidation with a weapon, felon in possession of a firearm and going armed with intent.

He is accused of firing a “series of shots with a .45-caliber handgun at close range” into a Buick Rendezvous in the parking lot of the Iowa Smoke Shop at 70 Kirkwood Court SW, according to criminal complaints.

Officers arrived about 1:20 a.m. and found Royal Abram and Matrell Johnson, both 18, of Cedar Rapids, fatally shot in back seat of the car, complaints show.

Two 19-year-olds, Booker McKinney and Kayla Panos-Blackcloud, were in the front seats and were badly injured.

If convicted of the charges, Richardson faces two life sentences. His trial was reset to May 4.

Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

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