In 2017, three men were accused of killing a child and his father in Swissvale. Yesterday, the three men attended a preliminary hearing in the case.
Brandon Barnett, age 26, of East Pittsburgh, his brother, Jacqua Barnett, age 30, of Homestead, and Donavan L. Wilson, age 23, of Rankin will face a jury on homicide charges.
Charges of conspiracy to commit homicide were dismissed by District Judge Richard G. Opiela.
The three men allegedly killed Jo Lawrence Stewart and his father, Walter Stewart, on December 26, 2017, during a shootout. The Stewarts were from North Braddock.
One of the three men, Brandon Barnett, was critically wounded by a gunshot in the incident. Jacqua Barnett drove him to a hospital after the shooting, which investigators call a drug deal gone bad.
The night of the shooting, Mr. Stewart was found by police, dead in the doorway of a Columbia Avenue home. The boy was injured and lying atop his father. He was taken to Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh UPMC, but was pronounced dead less than an hour later. Both were shot in the chest, according to the county medical examiner’s office.
A pair of witnesses cooperated with police. One witness told investigators that Wilson called to tell him to open both front and back doors of 1913 Columbia Avenue. Wilson told the witness to go upstairs after he had the doors open. A few minutes later, the witness heard someone else come in the front door and then a scuffle. He heard Wilson yell and several gunshots and then saw, from where he was on the second floor, a man he didn’t know, who turned out to be Mr. Stewart, lying in the doorway to the home. A .40-caliber Glock handgun was found at the front entrance to the home. It was registered to Brandon Barnett.
Wilson has had previous convictions for fleeing police and felony drug charges.
Brandon Barnett was facing a trial in January for receiving stolen property and escape.
Jacqua Barnett has also had previous convictions, for driving without a license, escape, resisting arrest, giving false identification to police, and endangering the welfare of children.
Mr. Stewart had a clean criminal record. He worked in a group home, caring for adults with disabilities. He was described as a dedicated caregiver and a doting father.
Jo Lawrence Stewart was in the first grade at Wilkins Primary School in the Woodland Hills School district. He was described as a smart, warm, and loving child.
If the Barnett brothers and Mr. Wilson are convicted, their sentence will depend upon many things, including their intent and if they were in the process of doing something illegal when the killing happened. There are three degrees of homicide in Pennsylvania, and the penalties range from two and one-half to five years in prison for involuntary manslaughter to life in prison without parole or death for first-degree homicide. Prosecutors will have a lot to prove to gain a conviction, and the men’s attorneys will need to use all the tools in their toolbox to gain a dismissal of the charges.
Update June 5, 2019:
Last month, charges against the three men were dropped due to the death of a vital witness in the case. Prosecutors feel they do not have enough evidence without the man’s testimony to gain a conviction. The three men are free from prosecution, at least for now.
It’s possible that investigators could find more evidence or convince another witness to testify, in which case, charges will be re-filed. Pennsylvania has no statute of limitations for murder. These men will likely be looking over their shoulders for the rest of their lives, wondering if they’ll be charged again.
The prosecutors in this case would not have made this decision lightly. While I don’t know what exact evidence they have, I know that they hate to lose. The fact that an innocent seven-year-old died will add fuel to their desire for justice. They’ll search, I’m sure, until they have the evidence they need.