Prosecutors dismiss murder charges in 2013 Chambersburg slaying

City gunman Masiyah “Chicken” Howard has beaten murder charges through attrition after being prosecuted for years as an alleged killer.

Masiyah “Chicken” Howard

Masiyah Howard

Howard was accused of shooting and killing 25-year-old Louis Bryan Alvarez over a $20 dispute involving an Xbox video game system in 2013, but a jury earlier this year could not reach a verdict on whether Howard was responsible for the victim’s death.

The state had the option of retrying him on the murder charges, but the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office has instead decided to dismiss all counts related to the Alvarez homicide after Howard pleaded guilty in June to possession of a firearm for an unlawful purpose in an unrelated robbery case.

A judge sentenced Howard to five years of incarceration in July for the weapons offense, but his time in the state prison system will be short lived. That’s because the 21-year-old Howard received 1,590 days of jail credit and is therefore slated to be released from state custody on Jan. 9, 2018, according to the New Jersey Department of Corrections.

When Howard was 17 years old, he allegedly committed an armed robbery in Trenton on Feb. 11, 2013, and then allegedly gunned down Alvarez two weeks later in the city’s Chambersburg neighborhood on the night of Feb. 26, 2013.

Police arrested Howard on Feb. 28, 2013, in connection with the robbery and a few days later also charged him with murder and weapons offenses in connection with the Alvarez slaying. The state ultimately decided to prosecute Howard as an adult in both the homicide and robbery cases.

Louis Bryan Alvarez

Louis Bryan Alvarez

Since his arrest in 2013 up till his transfer to the state prison system earlier this summer, Howard had been locked up at the Mercer County Correction Center on high monetary bail. He pleaded not guilty in the homicide case and took the matter to a trial by jury, which ended with a mixed verdict.

The jury on May 9 found Howard guilty of unlawful possession of a handgun but was hung on the counts of murder and possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose. The jury was firmly convinced that Howard unlawfully possessed a firearm, but the 12 jurors could not unanimously agree on whether Howard was the gunman who had shot Alvarez to death with a fatal bullet to the chest.

The weapons conviction could have resulted in Howard getting sentenced to five to 10 years in state prison, far less than the 30 to 75 years of incarceration he would have received if a jury had convicted him on first-degree murder. But the guilty verdict on the weapons charge became almost meaningless after Howard accepted a plea offer from the state in the robbery case.

Howard resolved his robbery case by pleading guilty June 2 to second-degree possession of a firearm for an unlawful purpose. Prosecutors, in turn, dismissed the other counts against Howard in the robbery case and dismissed all counts in the homicide case when Mercer County Superior Court Judge Darlene Pereksta sentenced the defendant on July 7 to five years of incarceration for the weapons offense.

In dismissing the homicide-related charges, the prosecutor’s office has effectively exonerated Howard of murder while acknowledging it would have been difficult —perhaps near impossible — for the state to unanimously convince 12 jurors beyond a reasonable doubt that Howard was the gunman who killed Alvarez.

At the end of the day, the state did not have the strongest case against Howard. For example, the state did not have any surveillance video, eyewitness accounts or direct evidence linking Howard to the February 2013 murder of Alvarez.

Prosecutors primarily relied upon the testimony of 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 the county jail for shooting someone.

Although the state proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Howard unlawfully possessed a handgun without first having obtained a permit to carry, 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 rendered the jury unable to unanimously decide whether Howard was guilty of murder or manslaughter. The jurors declined to speak with The Trentonian about their deliberations after the trial ended with the partial verdict.

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

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

Howard was represented by defense attorney Steven Lember and is currently incarcerated at the Garden State Youth Correctional Facility in Chesterfield Township.

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