Jury convicts alleged killer Masiyah Howard on weapons offense, gets hung on murder count

After deliberating for several days, a 12-member jury on Tuesday unanimously found Trenton gunman Masiyah “Chicken” Howard guilty of unlawful possession of a handgun but could not reach a verdict on whether he was guilty of murder or manslaughter.

Defendant Masiyah Howard listens to closing arguments in Mercer County Superior Court on Wenesday, May 3, 2017. (Gregg Slaboda Photo)

Defendant Masiyah Howard listens to closing arguments in Mercer County Superior Court on Wenesday, May 3, 2017.
(Gregg Slaboda Photo)

The jurors unanimously agreed that the state proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Howard possessed a firearm without a permit to carry, but they could not all agree on whether Howard used that gun for the purpose of committing murder.

Prosecutors have accused Howard, 21, of shooting and killing 25-year-old Louis Bryan Alvarez over a $20 dispute involving an Xbox video game system. The victim suffered a fatal gunshot wound to the chest inside his Chambersburg home on the night of Feb. 26, 2013. The lethal shot was fired from outside the Fulton Street residence and shattered through a front glass window before striking Alvarez. 

Howard has been incarcerated in jail ever since being arrested in March 2013 at the age of 17. Being tried as an adult, Howard pleaded not guilty to murder and weapons offenses, but the jury was firmly convinced he unlawfully possessed a handgun without first having obtained a permit to carry.

With the jury convicting Howard of the second-degree weapons offense, he could potentially be sentenced up to 10 years in state prison. But the state will have to decide whether it will retry Howard on the unresolved charges of murder and possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, because the trial ended Tuesday with the jury being hung on those two counts.

Mixed outcome

“It’s obviously not the result we were looking for,” Mercer County Assistant Prosecutor Heather Hadley said Tuesday after the jury failed to convict Howard on the more serious charges in the indictment. “We believe we’ve got the right person.”

Hadley further said she was “disappointed” with the outcome but appreciated that “at least we have a conviction on one of the counts.”

The Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office will have to “sit back and assess what we are going to do with the other counts,” Hadley said, adding she intends to meet with the victim’s family in the near future before making a decision on how to proceed on the unresolved charges.

The indictment charged Howard with first-degree murder, but the jurors were instructed to consider the lesser homicide charges of manslaughter if they could not reach a verdict on murder.

“The jury could not reach a verdict on either the murder or manslaughter counts; they were hung,” said Steven Lember, Howard’s defense attorney. “We don’t know how they were leaning.”

Lember said “we won’t know for a while” on whether the state will retry the case on the unresolved charges.

Little evidence

The state did not have any surveillance video, eyewitness accounts or direct evidence linking Howard to the February 2013 murder of Alvarez, but prosecutors did have three cooperating witnesses — a trio of legally troubled Trenton gang members from the 793 Bloods set — who testified under oath that Howard had previously talked to them about being in jail for shooting someone.

Louis Bryan Alvarez

Louis Bryan Alvarez

The lack of direct evidence in the case and the state’s reliance upon criminal cooperating witnesses seeking lenient prison sentences may have been the issue that made the jury unable to unanimously decide whether Howard was guilty of murder or manslaughter and possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose.

After the trial ended Tuesday afternoon, Trenton Homicide Watch asked the jurors whether they wanted to comment on their deliberations, but all of them respectfully declined.

Mercer County Superior Court Judge Andrew Smithson presided over the trial and told the jurors it was regrettable they could not reach a verdict on all counts but that “you’ve given it your best shot. I know you have. Thank you.”

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