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NJ man accused of burning 5 teens alive in 1978 tells jury 'I am not a murderer'
NEWARK, N.J. (AP) ' A long-running cold case that began with the disappearance of five New Jersey teenagers in 1978 and languished for more than three decades before winding up in court this month was placed in the hands of a jury Friday.
Lee Evans is accused of burning the teens alive because they stole marijuana from him.
Evans, who represented himself with assistance from a court-appointed attorney, said during his closing argument Friday that there was no evidence to connect him to the case.
"I am innocent of these charges," Evans told the jury. "First and foremost: I am not a murderer."
During his 40-minute closing argument, Evans pointed out what he said were major inconsistencies in the testimonies of prosecution witnesses, several of whom had criminal records. He noted that they gave different accounts about what time they had seen him with the teenagers, who Evans often hired for odd jobs, on the last day the boys were seen alive: Aug. 20, 1978.
The state's star witness, Evans' cousin Philander Hampton, pleaded guilty and was given a 10-year sentence and the promise of $15,000 in post-jail relocation money in exchange for his testimony against Evans.
It was Hampton's comments to authorities in 2008 that helped revive the long-dormant case.
The case, originally classified as a missing persons case, went cold for decades until a pair of Newark detectives on the cusp of retirement decided to re-investigate it as an unsolved homicide.
Hampton told investigators that Evans was angry that the teens had stolen a pound of marijuana from his apartment the week before. He said he had helped Evans lure the teens to a vacant Newark house after asking them to help move some boxes, herded the boys into a closet and secured the door with a 6-inch nail. He said Evans poured gasoline around the perimeter, demanded that Hampton give him a match and set the house ablaze.
The bodies of 17-year-olds Melvin Pittman and Ernest Taylor and 16-year-olds Alvin Turner, Randy Johnson and Michael McDowell were never found. The boys were reported missing after the fire, and authorities at the time never connected the two events or examined the fire site as a crime scene.
Evans, 58, and the attorney assisting him, Bukie Adetula, emphasized during closing arguments that the scenario Hampton testified to would have been impossible.
"Nobody is screaming? Nobody is fighting? Five boys, at least two of them big enough to take on Lee Evans and Mr. Hampton, and nobody struggles? Does it make sense?" Adetula asked the jury. "A man brings a five-gallon (container) of gasoline and doesn't bring a match? Has the state proved this beyond a reasonable doubt, or are they hoping you will treat this as a 'Hail Mary pass,' and hoping you will come down and catch that ball?"
Essex County Assistant Prosecutor Cheryl Cucinello countered that the teens knew and trusted Evans, who was known in the community by the nickname "Big Man," as he often hired them for odd-jobs, usually paying in marijuana.
"The five boys were on the cusp of manhood, he was their friend, their employer, they trusted him, that's why they went into the closet willingly with Mr. Evans," Cucinello said. "The combination of fear and trust that the boys felt toward Mr. Evans proved deadly."
Cucinello emphasized how several witnesses ' including family members of the missing teens ' testified to seeing the boys for a final time on the night of Aug. 20, 1978, some of them in the back of Evans's light green truck. The fact that witnesses cited different times of night for what they had seen, Cucinello said, was due to the fact they were recalling something that happened more than 30 years ago.
Cucinello said Evans had long been suspected in the boy's disappearance, and his continuing to live in the community was stressful for the victim's families, many of whom packed the courtroom throughout the trial.
"They disappeared right before the eyes of their families," Cucinello said. "They disappeared right from the neighborhood where some of them lived, and it seemed, without a trace."
Evans cited that as evidence of his innocence, arguing to the jury that if he had committed such a horrific crime just blocks from his home, he surely would have fled.
"After 33 years, I've been living in the same community. I never left. I never ran anywhere," Evans said. "I've faced the same people every day."
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