February 14, 2013 10:39:41 AM
For the second time in five years, the trial of a Columbus man ended in a hung jury.
Charlton Aaron Colom, 35, on trial in Lowndes County Municipal Court for possession of a weapon by a convicted felon, was free Wednesday after the jury could not reach a unanimous verdict. The jury vote was 6-5 with one undecided. Colom was tried on the same charge, with that trial also ending in a hung jury after a 6-6 vote in 2009.
The state alleged that Colom, who has a pair of previous convictions on drug charges, was in possession of a Raven .25 caliber handgun. At the time of Colom's arrest, the gun was located approximately 15 to 20 feet from where Colom was standing.
After officers testified on Tuesday and Wednesday morning, the state rested its case. Colom then took the stand to testify on his behalf. Colom's version of events differed significantly from those of the three law enforcement officers who testified to what they saw and heard on the night of May 30, 2008.
In Tuesday's and Wednesday's testimonies, Larry Swearingen and John Pevey gave their account of the night's events. The two were part of a group of 20 law enforcement officers executing search warrants at an apartment complex in the 1600 block of 27th Street North. Both Pevey and Swearingen testified that when they got out of their vehicles, they heard a gunshot coming from the east side of the complex. Swearingen immediately went to investigate the sound and came in contact with Colom. Swearingen testified that Colom was the only individual on scene and he was detained.
During Pevey's testimony on Tuesday, the defense hammered away on previous conflicting testimony given by Pevey in Colom's 2009 trial. Pevey claimed that during an interview, after his arrest, Colom admitted ownership of the gun. But in trial, Pevey testified that Colom did not claim ownership of the gun. Pevey said he "misspoke'' during his testimony.
The court file from the 2009 trial has a recount from Pevey's testimony while being questioned by Colom's attorney, William Starks, in 2009:
Starks: "He never said he threw the gun did he?"
Pevey: "He did. He did tell me -- he said -- No, he didn't tell me he threw the gun. He told me, he laughed and said, 'Yeah, I was just as shocked for that gun going off as well.'"
After his testimony in 2009, Pevey reread his notes from the arrest and claimed he realized his error in testimony.
In Tuesday's testimony, Starks asked Pevey again about Colom's confession. Pevey adamantly claims Colom confessed in an interview.
"I asked him, 'I guess you were just as shocked as we were when that gun went off.'" He said, 'I was. I had the gun in my pocket and when I saw the police I took it out and threw it and the next thing I knew the gun went off.'"
Pevey testified that the hammer-less Raven would likely have fired if it had been thrown and hit the ground or a tree.
On Wednesday, Colom took the stand and said that he was not the only person outside at the time of the gunshot that night in 2008. Colom testified that he had gone outside to use the restroom and heard someone yell a warning that the police were on scene.
"That night, there were guys along the back wall smoking marijuana," Colom said. "I heard somebody say '5-0.'"
Colom testified that while he was using the restroom, he heard the gunshot. Colom said the men alongside the east side of the wall smoking marijuana went around to the back of the complex and he walked around front where he was confronted by police.
"I told them I didn't have a gun," Colom said. "They asked me where the gunshot came from and I told them I didn't know."
On cross examination by Assistant District Attorney Mark Jackson, Colom revealed that he could not have thrown a gun because his hands were occupied.
"I had a pin bottle (beer bottle) in my right hand and I was peeing with my left hand," he said. When he heard the gunshot, he testified "I zipped up my pants and walked around."
Colom's testimony that there were others outside the complex at the time of the incident conflicts with the officers' assertion that the area was secure. Colom also testified that at least two people ran from the police that night and two were arrested on drug charges.
Jackson asked Colom if he had just heard a gunshot, why he was walking instead of running away from the direction of the gunfire.
"Run for what?" Colom asked. "Only people who are going to run are the ones who did something guilty. I didn't do anything wrong. I'm not going to run."
When questioned by Jackson about his alleged confession to Pevey, Colom denied admitting he had the gun.
"I never chuckled, there wasn't anything funny," Colom said. "I asked about my bond. I didn't tell him anything else."
Colom then said that Pevey wrote a statement for him, but he refused to sign it.
The state called Eddie Hawkins to the stand to refute Colom's testimony. Hawkins, a seasoned agent with the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, testified that he did not smell marijuana on scene that night. Hawkins teaches at police academies across the state and as part of the course, he has to burn marijuana to teach new officers the distinct smell. Hawkins said he did not smell marijuana nor did he find any paraphernalia on the ground near the east side of the complex where Colom claimed the other men were.
Hawkins also testified that the police did not chase anyone as Colom claimed and he did not see anyone other than Colom at the time of the arrest. Hawkins also did not recall seeing a beer bottle in Colom's hand.
During closing arguments, Jackson argued that the gun was Colom's, even though it was not found on his person.
"He knew he threw that gun, he knew what was about to happen, he knew he wasn't supposed to be in possession of it," Jackson told the jury.
Starks argued what his client maintained the entire trial: that anyone could have been on scene the night of the raid and dropped the gun.
After a two-and-a-half hour deliberation, the jury came back with a 6-5-1 vote.
Naya Colom, the sister of the accused, said she felt that her family had been targeted.
"To me, I feel like this is not about the law anymore," she said. "I feel like this is a personal vendetta against my family."
She referenced her brother's arrest for murder in December 2008. That charge was declared nolle prosequi in July 2012 after the district attorney decided not to prosecute the case. "I find it mysterious," she said. "Now all of a sudden they're ready to try this case five years later with no new evidence. Our family has been through a lot over the course of the last four to five years. We're just ready for this to be over so we can recover and move on. Our family rests in Psalm 35. I know my brother is innocent."
Jackson said despite the second hung jury, the district attorney's office will pursue a new trial.
"William Starks and I were told to get with the judge and get a new trial date set and prepare for trial," Jackson said.
The new trial date should be announced in the next few days.
Sarah Fowler covered crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch.
1. In his DNA: Shepherd plays key role in cold case arrest COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY
2. Volunteers host local arts bazaar in Starkville Sunday STARKVILLE & OKTIBBEHA COUNTY
3. MSU borrowing to build $9M parking garage STARKVILLE & OKTIBBEHA COUNTY
4. Locals recognizing the history, purpose of Memorial Day COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY