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.
There was speculation that Hampton, whose taped confession is the foundation of the state’s case, was going to plead guilty on Tuesday.
Prosecutor Peter Guarino refused to deny it. Guarino would only say that his office and Hampton’s lawyers required more time to discuss issues in the case.
Since Evans and Hampton were arraigned last March, only two relatives of the young men have consistently attended hearings. There were four additional family members at the courthouse on Tuesday; all of them live outside of New Jersey. It appeared from their showing that something important was going to happen regarding Hampton.
Guarino said that he hadn’t told any of the relatives to be in court. However, Rogers Taylor, 54, the older brother of Ernest, contradicted Guarino. “He called me and told me to come down.”
Most of the relatives had arrived at 9 a.m., and it wasn’t until noon that Guarino told them Hampton’s hearing was postponed. Hampton is currently in jail. Guarino was asked if Hampton was at the courthouse, but he would not comment. If Hampton pleads guilty, he may be required to tell the story of what happened to Turner, McDowell, Johnson, Pittman and Taylor on that summer evening 32 years ago.
“So close yet so far,” commented a disappointed Gerald McDowell, 52. McDowell, the older cousin of Michael, traveled from Long Island to attend Tuesday’s hearing. Before the prosecutor announced that proceedings were called off, McDowell was optimistic, telling a reporter, “This is the beginning of what I hope will be the end.”
“We need to close this chapter in our family,” added Troy Cowan, 38. Cowan traveled from Delaware for Tuesday’s hearing. He was 8 when his cousin Michael went missing. “He was my everything; he was the big brother I never had.”
McDowell and Cowan doted on their aunt Cleo McDowell, 68, who was visiting from Las Vegas, as she waited outside the courtroom to possibly face one of the men accused of killing her nephew.
Taylor, who resides in Baltimore but is staying in Newark until the trial begins, was resigned as he left court. “It’s been like this for 30 years,” he said, “Waiting.”