The murder trial of two Delaware County teenagers charged in the stray-bullet killing of a Chester woman could be more complicated than prosecutors had anticipated.
A key witness, who authorities say had implicated Abdul Johnson, 17, and Dominique Smith, 19, in last month's shooting of Kathy Stewart inside her mother's home, recanted his previous statement yesterday at the defendants' preliminary hearing, claiming that he was coerced by police.
"I don't really want to be here," said the 16-year-old witness, who is in the custody of juvenile authorities for an unrelated arrest.
Assistant District Attorney Kathleen Magee said the teen gave investigators a written statement last month saying that Johnson and Smith had confessed to killing Stewart during a shootout outside of the William Penn housing projects - even laughing about her death.
Stewart, 49, a mother of three and grandmother of four, was shot in the head while lying on her mother's bed when a stray bullet fired from outside pierced the wall and the headboard. She was staying at the Franklin Street house to help care for her cancer-stricken mother.
"Did you ever speak with them about the shooting?" Magee asked the witness, referring to Johnson and Smith.
"No," he said, recanting what he'd previously told police.
The teenager acknowledged writing the statement, but then blurted out: "I'd just got beat up by the cops. There was pressure on me . . . They made me do it."
Some of Stewart's relatives groaned and left the courtroom.
Johnson's attorney, Michael Quinn, asked Magisterial District Judge Dawn Vann to deem the written statement inadmissible because the witness now claims that the information is false.
"They're not getting what they want, so they're trying to bully this man!" Quinn said.
"He didn't want to put those answers down. He was forced," said Smith's attorney, Kevin Coyne.
Stewart's family initially thought that she was having a seizure when they found her on the bed Nov. 15. But Chester Police Officer Steven Byrne testified that he immediately determined that "it was much more serious than that" when he saw the blood.
"We realized there was a hole in the wall," Byrne said.
Despite yesterday's developments, Vann ruled that Johnson and Smith be held for trial on all charges, including first-degree murder, reckless endangerment and weapons violations.
Quinn said he would seek to have the 16-year-old's statement thrown out.
"It's not admissible, despite the commonwealth's very valiant effort," he said.