Shawn Yarbray, a Southwest Philadelphia man charged with stabbing City Councilman David Oh last May 31, was confronted with a major decision in court Monday: begin selecting a jury within minutes, or wait a month or so to give his attorney time to shore up evidence that points to another man as the councilman's attacker.
Yarbray, his voice filling with emotion and having spent the last 10 months in jail unable to pay bail, told Common Pleas Court Judge Sierra Thomas Street that despite reservations, he wanted to stand trial immediately. "I just want to get it over with," said Yarbray, who turned 25 on Saturday.
Opening arguments by prosecution and defense attorneys now are scheduled for Tuesday morning.
Despite Oh's having "positively" identified Yarbray as his attacker in a police photo lineup days after the assault and at a court hearing last year, Yarbray and his court-appointed attorney, Samuel C. Stretton, contend that Oh is mistaken and that Yarbray is a victim himself — of mistaken identity.
Stretton sought unsuccessfully during a hearing Monday to be allowed to tell the jury that Jarvas Kline Meekins, 24, of Hollywood, Fla., is the man who actually stabbed Oh, 58. The councilman had just exited his car and was walking with shopping bags when he was attacked just after 9:40 p.m. in front of his home in the 5800 block of Thomas Avenue in Cobbs Creek.
Stretton argued that Meekins, who lived about two blocks from Oh last May, implicated himself in a handful of bigoted emails he sent to Dwayne Chung, an Asian American police officer in Hollywood, a week after the attack on Oh, who is also Asian American.
In one June 6 email, a copy of which was obtained by the Inquirer and Daily News, Meekins wrote to Chung: "Like how we got Philly councilman David Oh poked up, you and you're career is next gool boy."
In response, on June 6, the Hollywood Police Department issued a confidential, law-enforcement-only alert featuring Meekins' photo, last known address in that city, and details about the allegations against him. The alert stated that Meekins is a military veteran suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, that he is known to make threats to shoot law enforcement, and that he frequents all areas of East Hollywood. He was arrested a day later.
The Philadelphia District Attorney's Office provided Stretton with information on Meekins on Feb. 21. Meekins has indicated he is willing to plead guilty in federal court to sending the emails, Stretton said.
Judge Thomas Street, however rebuffed Stretton's request to tell the jury about Meekins, saying he lacked corroboration that the emails were sent by him until he pleads guilty.
Stretton said he believes he can win Yarbray's freedom even without being able to tell the jury about Meekins. "I believe I can win this case without it because all they have is [Oh's] identification, and that is a very weak form of testimony without corroboration," he said in an interview.
The District Attorney's Office remained unconcerned about the validity of its case.
"After speaking with Councilman Oh, I'm very confident that we have the right person," Assistant District Attorney Lori Edelman-Orem said in an interview after Monday's hearing.
Oh said Friday that he is certain Yarbray is the man who tried to rob him and stabbed him in the chest. The night of the attack, he gave police a description of the attacker, and he picked Yarbray's photo from a photo array the next day, and identified him in court during a preliminary hearing in July.
"It's one thing to identify a photograph. It's another thing to identify a person face to face, which I did," Oh said.