Theo Berry was charged eight and a half years ago with pulling the trigger in the execution-style murder of his stepfather in a Mantua parking lot, then killing a 64-year-old great-grandmother who allegedly could have been a witness against him.
Friday, a city jury finally delivered a verdict in his case, ruling that Berry was not guilty and clearing him of a potential life sentence for the first time since 2009.
Berry, 32, held his head in his hands as the verdict was announced, and family members behind him sobbed and whispered "thank you." He was expected to be freed from custody as soon as Friday night.
Relatives of one of the victims, Cotneita Hanchard, meanwhile, sat in court with tears in their eyes and said afterward that the pain was "unbearable."
"It's like my mom died for nothing," said her son, Leroy Gregory, of West Philadelphia.
Hanchard and her coworker, Duane Bell, 41 — Berry's stepfather — were killed in 2007 as Bell gave Hanchard a ride home from the Bellevue, the iconic Center City hotel, office, and retail complex where they worked as office cleaners. Authorities said that Bell was the target, and that Hanchard was killed simply because she was in the car.
The slaying received national attention when Gregory returned from his Army post in Afghanistan to bury his mother amid one of the city's most violent stretches in a decade.
"Where is the real war?" Gregory said at the time. "Is it here in Philadelphia or over there in Afghanistan?"
Hanchard was an immigrant of Jamaica and had five children and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. On Feb. 28, 2007, she had prepared Bell a birthday dinner at work, and in gratitude he drove her home after their night shift. Both Bell and Hanchard were shot to death inside his Lincoln Continental around 1 a.m. March 1 on the 3200 block of Mantua Avenue.
For two years, questions swirled about the identity of the killer and the reason for the slayings.
Berry was arrested in December 2009. He was tried in 2012 and faced a potential death sentence, but the trial ended with a hung jury. For the last six years, Berry has been in jail awaiting another trial, though this time prosecutors did not seek capital punishment. District Attorney Larry Krasner, who was sworn in in January, said on the campaign trail that he would not seek to have any criminals executed.
The evidence used in Berry's prosecution was largely circumstantial — no eyewitnesses, forensic evidence, or videos. Prosecutors did not present a definitive motive, and relied largely on cellphone records that placed him near the scene in the minutes before and after the shooting. They highlighted that he was the last person to call his stepfather, minutes before the crime — something he lied about when speaking to detectives, according to records presented in court this week.
During the two-week retrial before Common Pleas Court Judge J. Scott O'Keefe, prosecutors Jude Conroy and Matthew Krouse highlighted the cellphone records, bringing in an expert witness from the FBI to untangle a complicated web of phones tied to Berry, his friend, and another number to which some of Berry's calls had been forwarded.
The pattern of activity in the hours surrounding the shooting, they argued, showed that Berry had lured his stepfather to a Mantua parking lot, then ambushed and shot him in the driver's seat, killing Hanchard afterward.
They also presented testimony from a former girlfriend, Brandi Evans, who testified that Berry asked her to toss out some of his clothes after the crime was committed, and that he later confided that Bell needed to be out of the way.
Berry's attorney, Brian McMonagle, told jurors during his closing argument Thursday that prosecutors hadn't "come within a million miles" of proving that Berry was the killer. McMonagle noted that two guns were used in the shooting, and sought to cast Evans as unreliable, noting she only came forward after being charged with a crime of her own — illegally buying a gun. McMonagle repeatedly cast her as "a liar" and told jurors: "You've been sold something that isn't right."
The gallery was packed Thursday as McMonagle and Conroy — respected veterans of the criminal justice system — delivered closing arguments. Each has spent decades trying contentious cases, but said this week that they may no longer litigate many homicides in order to focus on other work.