Jury acquits one, hangs on other in Route 29 slay case
Andre “Ceto” Romero was a friend of Daquan Dowling, the man shot to death four years ago in a drive-by along a busy capital city highway.
As kids, they played at parks together. They went swimming. They ate together. They had sleepovers at Dowling’s mother’s home in Trenton.
“I raised that boy with my son,” said Saundra Dowling, Daquan’s mother. “In the beginning, I said ‘Ceto’ didn’t do it.”
In the end, the jury, after deliberating for roughly six hours, decided “Ceto” didn’t do it, either – a “disgusting” decision that caused Dowling’s relatives to lose faith in the jury system.
Dowling was struck in the head and killed instantly, on Jan. 30, 2012, as he drove along Route 29 in Trenton with passenger Morris Satchel.
“I know if they could get away with murder, I know I could,” said Samaijah Edwards, Dowling’s sister.
Dowling’s mother said Assistant Prosecutor James Scott “had everything down pat,” seamlessly weaving more than 100 pieces of evidence for jurors.
And they still came back deadlocked on whether suspected triggerman William “Bill Bill” Mitchell fired the fatal shot from a .357 handgun, strewn along the escape path on the highway.
Saundra Dowling didn’t shed a tear as the verdict was read, consoling devastated family members.
Scott had the difficult task of meeting with the family after the verdict.
“You always tell the family when you go to trial any result is possible,” he said. “Any attorney who says you have a slam dunk case hasn’t tried enough cases. But I would say pretty much everyone in that courtroom was surprised at that result.”
The biggest surprise, perhaps, was that the jury nearly sent Mitchell home. He’ll be retried instead.
A juror who did not want to give his name said nine people believed Mitchell was not guilty, a single person thought he did it and two were undecided.
Jurors were hung up on state cooperators Jamar Square and Anthony Marks, who testified they were inside a stolen Chrsyler Sebring when Mitchell and Romero riddled Dowling’s white Ford Taurus with bullets.
While they were initially charged with murder, the men reached plea deal with prosecutors to admit to gun charges.
Marks was given a 10-year deal, while Square, who was described by a defense attorney as a “one-man crime wave,” testified he hoped he doesn’t go to prison when he’s sentenced.
Marks told jurors that when Mitchell announced he was going to light up the car, he told him not to do it on the busy highway, in the middle of rush hour traffic.
Square didn’t come across well on the stand, never admitting he knew guns were in the car. He also distanced himself from a Jamaican wig he used to put on a performance for “some females” outside of a city bodega prior to getting picked up by Marks and Co.
A similar Jamaican wig was apparently worn by Mitchell during the murder, and discovered along the men’s escape route.
The two cooperators also gave different nicknames of the person Mitchell and Romero were targeting in a East Trenton-South Trenton feud that flared up when Romero’s sister got jumped.
Square claimed the men were after “Old Boy from South Trenton,” Marks saying it was “Poopie.”
Christopher Campbell, Mitchell’s attorney, said the “two cooperating witnesses’ stories were completely inconsistent in many, many ways, even without that ‘false in one, false in all’ charge.”
The juror didn’t buy a word of it.
“They had something to gain from their testimony and their prior run-ins with the law,” the juror said.
Saundra Dowling blasted the decision to give the two men deals to cooperate against Mitchell and Romero, saying their “lies” on the stand confused the jury and made it hard for them to convict Mitchell and too easy for them to acquit Romero.
“Four friends. Four dummies. And four murderers,” she said. “And God has the last say so.”
For Mitchell, the sticking point may have been a cell phone found lodged between the seat cushions of the stolen car.
It had pictures of Mitchell, Romero and Marks partying and playing pool at Dave & Busters.
They jury couldn’t reconcile that, so one man walked, and another one talked.
Mitchell didn’t hide his disgust with the jury after the verdict was announced.
After his co-defendant was acquitted on all charges, multiple witnesses in the courtroom contend Mitchell shouted at Scott: “Ceto’s DNA was on the gun. This is crazy, man.”
Dowling’s family members claimed Mitchell told Romero after the verdict he’d need protection on the streets.
Campbell was standing next to his client and said all he heard him say was, “Congratulations. You’re going home.”
Romero still has the two less serious cases his attorney will look to resolve. He is being held on a combined bail of $100,000, as his family didn’t have money to spring him from jail following the verdict.
Despite that, Romero and relatives were elated.
Olga Romero, Andre’s aunt, said she was comforted by “the power of prayer” and the belief her nephew was innocent.
“He’s not a saint, but he’s definitely not a murderer,” she said.
The tall, gangly Romero draped his arms around his much-shorter attorney, Patrick O’Hara.
O’Hara persuaded jurors to acquit his client by contending no physical evidence tied him to the stolen Sebring.
O’Hara said it was as plausible car thief Louis Alvarado, whose DNA was found in the car that he admitted lifting outside the La Guira Bar, was the fourth person on the car.
Despite claiming his client wasn’t in the car, O’Hara never pursued an alibi defense.
He explained Romero didn’t know he was a suspect for more than a year after the murder, until he was indicted in March 2013.
By that time, Romero couldn’t remember where he was the day of the murder, making such a defense a dodgy proposition.
“An uncertain alibi is a death knell for a defendant,” O’Hara said. “You have to be rock-solid certain.”
In the end, not going that route was his saving grace.
“I’m crying on the inside,” Saundra Dowling said. “Everyone gets to walk free. How to get away with murder? You just seen a whole video on it.”