Linda McNeill was shaking as she watched five sheriff’s officers attempt to drag Tymir Butler — who witnesses said fatally shot her 31-year-old son, Julius Luke — into a courtroom at the Stout Center for Criminal Justice.
As Butler, a bulky 23-year-old who goes by “Pudgy,” struggled and resisted, Judge Thomas Gehret ordered him taken away.
“I’m not going to force him to be brought out. That’s not happening,” Gehret said during a preliminary hearing in September.
That’s because Butler was not on trial. He had been brought in to testify against McNeill’s other son, Kareem Luke, 38, who is charged with murdering his own brother, under the theory that the Lukes attempted a robbery that led to Julius Luke’s death.
If convicted, Kareem Luke faces a mandatory sentence of life without parole.
“They’re trying to take my other son now,” said McNeill, her eyes red. “It’s as if they are protecting the killers."
The crime took place on May 9, 2018, at a Chinese takeout on Torresdale Avenue in Tacony. The Luke brothers had been in conflict with a group of men who allegedly sold drugs out of the store, and that night they arrived to find Butler there. The accounts of what happened next differ. According to Luke’s family, it was an argument. According to prosecutors, it was an attempted robbery. Not disputed is that Butler fired, Julius Luke fell, and Kareem Luke fled.
Anthony Voci, chief of the homicide unit at the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, said Kareem Luke is at fault and Butler shot in self-defense during the attempted robbery.
“This case is a classic example of the felony murder rule,” he said. “If you are in the process of perpetrating an enumerated felony, of which robbery is one, and someone dies … you are on the hook for that death.”
He added: “That is a proper charge for somebody who perpetrates a felony six days a week and twice on Sunday.”
Demetrius Thomas, who was with Butler at the store, picked up Butler’s gun, ran to nearby Disston Park, and hid it in the bushes, according to a statement he gave to detectives in December 2018. Later, he retrieved the weapon and returned it to Butler.
Both Butler and Thomas were offered immunity by prosecutors to testify against Kareem Luke, according to statements in court. Thomas has not been charged in connection with the case, while Voci said the office is pursuing gun-possession charges against Butler.
But more than a year after Julius Luke’s death, the court has still not been able to complete a preliminary hearing for Kareem Luke — a situation complicated by Butler’s refusal to take the witness stand.
At a sixth preliminary hearing date in September, Thomas finally was brought in to testify, but told lawyers that he had suffered four seizures in jail, wiping the incident from his memory. On the witness stand, Thomas was asked to read from a statement, which he seemed to not recall making and which only elliptically described a robbery. “I felt like they were trying to rob us,” Thomas told a detective, adding that the Luke brothers were blocking the door. Thomas said nothing was taken, though he dropped his drugs as he fled.
“Just to be clear, the immunity petition states that nothing you say can be used against you in any prosecution,” Assistant District Attorney Shuaiyb Newton assured him. Thomas said he did not even recognize Kareem Luke in the courtroom.
McNeill and her family believe the immunity offer — which Voci declined to discuss — has fueled criminal behavior in their community.
In December 2018, just a week after detectives interviewed Thomas and released him without charges, he allegedly returned to the same takeout where Luke was killed and shot another man, 25-year-old Justin Diaz. Thomas is in custody, charged with murder.
Attorneys representing Thomas and Butler in their pending criminal matters did not respond to requests for comment.
“I can’t wrap my head around any of this,” said Celeste Stevens, Diaz’s mother. She said her son was on the autism spectrum and was intoxicated when he was killed, following an argument, she believes, over a woman.
“What upsets me the most is the same people that murdered my son are the same people that murdered [Julius Luke], and they’re offering this guy who killed my son a deal for immunity to testify. … It’s just wrong on every level.”
To Julius and Kareem Luke’s mother, it’s hard to square what’s happening with the policies of Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, who has criticized his predecessors as overcharging and seeking excessive sentences.
She’s written letters to his office, she said, asking how he can proceed in this manner given his support for “dual victims” of violence and the justice system. “Imagine having the closest people to you ripped away by both violence & by an overly punitive system,” Krasner wrote on Twitter in August.
After the preliminary hearing was pushed to October, she said, “I was hoping this would be over so I can grieve for my baby who been killed. None of this will bring him back.”
Voci said his door is open to Luke if he has proof that the prosecutors’ theory is wrong. If Luke chooses not to come forward, he will eventually receive an offer to plead guilty in exchange for a lesser sentence than life without parole.
That’s assuming the prosecutors’ case can survive the preliminary hearing, which may hinge on bringing Butler to testify. After he refused in September, the prosecutor urged Gehret to hold him in contempt. “We cannot allow a witness in this case to stop the justice system,” Newton said.
The judge said he would not do so. He said the burden is on the prosecutor to present his case.