There's little dispute that Joseph Howanski fatally shot Merlos Mukaj on Lancaster Avenue in Powelton last month.
Surveillance video captured the killing. Howanski was taken into custody at the scene. And a Drexel University police officer testified Wednesday that while Howanski sat handcuffed in a police cruiser, he confessed to pulling the trigger.
But Howanski's attorney provided a glimpse at a possible defense during the 24-year-old's preliminary hearing Wednesday, saying that Howanski – a 2017 graduate of Drexel's LeBow College of Business – was legally permitted to carry a handgun, and that Mukaj initiated a physical confrontation by pushing him into the street and taking a swing at his head.
"It's clear," said defense attorney Fortunato Perri Jr., "my client is not the aggressor."
That argument was not enough to prevent Common Pleas Court Judge Charles Hayden from holding Howanski for trial on counts of murder, possession of an instrument of crime, and reckless endangerment. But it still proved unusual in a city where homicides are overwhelmingly committed with illegally purchased – or never-recovered – firearms, and the strategy could be revisited if Howanski elects to take his case before a jury.
Taking center stage Wednesday was the surveillance video that captured the killing, which was broadcast on a courtroom television screen and left Mukaj's supporters and Howanski himself in tears. Homicide Detective Timothy Scally provided descriptions as the video played.
The footage begins by showing Mukaj arguing with his girlfriend on the 3500 block of Lancaster around 11:40 p.m. Nov. 29.
After a few minutes, Howanski can be seen walking with a group of friends past the couple and out of the frame. He returns a few minutes later, lingering with a friend a few feet from Mukaj and the woman, neither of whom he knew.
Perri said that Howanski had come back because other women on the block had told him that Mukaj's girlfriend was screaming. When Mukaj walks away from her, the lingering Howanski approaches.
The video then shows Mukaj turning back and approaching Howanski, shoving him into the street and taking a swipe at his head.
It is difficult to see Howanski pull a gun and begin shooting, but Mukaj is clearly seen collapsing onto the pavement. His girlfriend sprints toward his limp body, and she cradles his head in her arms.
Drexel Police Sgt. David D'Aversa testified that Howanski stayed at the scene and cooperated after Mukaj's girlfriend identified him as the shooter. Mukaj was taken to a hospital and later declared dead from three gunshot wounds to the chest.
Drexel Police Officer Charles Barone said Howanski showed him where to find his license to carry. Barone also said Howanski told him: "'I'm not going to get beat up, so I shot him.'"
Assistant District Attorney Tracie Gaydos argued that that statement showed why Howanski's actions deserved to be prosecuted as first-degree murder.
"He preemptively [shot] a man for no reason," Gaydos said.
Howanski is scheduled to be formally arraigned next month. A trial date has not been set.