Mastermind in Clinton Avenue Five case permitted to represent self

CHARISSE L. WAUGH Special to the AmNews | 7/20/2011, 5:09 p.m.

The alleged mastermind in the Clinton Avenue Five case has been granted permission by a superior court judge to represent himself when the trial for the murder of five Black teens in Newark 32 years ago begins in October.

Citing dissatisfaction with his court appointed attorney, Lee Evans, 58, told Superior Judge Patricia Costello that he has no choice but to act as his own lawyer. "The defense is not in my best interest," he explained to her at a court hearing last Monday. "Since March 2010, when I was arrested, neither one of the attorneys has asked me if I was innocent." Evans' current attorney is his second. The court dismissed his first counsel after Evans complained that the lawyer was conspiring against him.

Evans is a force. His success in slowing down the trial's advance and dictating courtroom narrative with his laymen-quality motions, requests, letters and complaints has been impressive. On Monday, he accused his attorney of dishonesty. He told Costello that when he asked his lawyer for tapes, including his co-defendant's confession, the attorney conferred with the prosecutor and then gave him some blank tapes. The attorney, Bukie Adetula of Irvington, insisted that the tapes were functional. The judge scheduled a hearing for later in the week solely to play the tapes for Evans to make sure that they work.

Costello didn't have much choice but to grant Evans' wish to represent himself, as defendants have a constitutional right to act as their own lawyer.

With traces of his Deep South roots still evident in his voice, Evans informed the court that he has a high school diploma and can read and write English. Nonetheless, after patiently itemizing for him the risks of self-representation, Costello informed Evans that Adetula would remain at his table. "I can think of no one better in terms of knowledge of the case and competence," she said.

Evans couldn't answer basic questions about the case. At one point, the judge asked him what he was being charged with. Evans said arson and murder. However, there are no arson charges against him. Rather, he faces five counts of felony murder and five counts of murder.

Evans and his co-defendant and cousin Philander Hampton, 54, are accused of luring friends Alvin Turner, Michael McDowell and Randy Johnson, 16, and Melvin Pittman and Ernest Taylor, 17, to an abandoned home on the night of Aug. 20, 1978, barricading them inside a closet and burning the house to the ground in retaliation for the theft of some marijuana that Evans thought the young men had taken from his apartment. Their bodies have never been recovered.

All of the teens had gone home for supper and met up later to play basketball. They were last spotted on the back of Evans' truck and were never seen again. It is one of New Jersey's oldest missing persons cases, but was cracked in 2010 with Evans and Hampton's arrests.

Hampton was scheduled to appear in court on Tuesday morning, but that hearing was canceled, as were his last three hearings.