5 years on from Pittsfield killing: 'There's no justice for my husband'
PITTSFIELD — From the jury box, it was hard to see how Laquan Johnson could be guilty of murder.
His name came up only rarely during his recent trial. There was no evidence that the Pittsfield man fired the shot that ultimately killed Anthony Gamache in 2014. And no one was able to place Johnson at the scene.
"At no point did they prove that [Johnson] was there or even give you any real concrete evidence that he was there or that he had a gun or that [Gamache] died of a gunshot wound," said Rex Ransom, who sat on the jury in the Berkshire Superior Court trial, which ended last month.
"This is not exactly what we expected," he told The Eagle in a recent phone interview. "To have somebody on trial and then to present such little evidence."
In the end, the case never made it to the jury. Johnson's charges were dismissed after the state failed to establish enough evidence to continue the trial.
Gamache, 29, of Goshen, died after being shot in the leg after what he thought was a drug deal turned into a robbery. He initially was treated at a hospital and released, but he died the next day from a blood clot that prosecutors alleged was caused by the gunshot.
Monday will mark exactly five years since the shooting on Nov. 18, 2014.
The case was one of at least six homicide cases Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington's office inherited from the previous administration. Assistant District Attorney Joseph Yorlano, the prosecutor handling the case, had a number of witnesses prepared to testify that Johnson was the shooter, though none had signed written agreements with the DA's office.
After those witnesses recanted their previous statements, refused to testify at trial or were prohibited from identifying Johnson, the case unraveled.
Harrington described the trial's outcome as "heartbreaking for everybody involved."
"We felt very strongly that the case that was presented at the grand jury is what happened in this case, and we felt very strongly in Johnson's guilt here," she said. "The trial team in this case went to great lengths, and they did everything that they could to be able to fairly present their case to the jury."
Gamache' wife, Frances, did not attend the trial, because she was a potential witness, but she heard about the dismissal from another family member who was in the courtroom.
"We waited five years just to let the shooter go," she said in a recent phone interview with The Eagle. "There's no justice for my husband."
Lured by drug deal
On the night of the shooting, Gamache and two friends arranged to buy drugs from Johnson and another Pittsfield man, Peter Campbell, in the parking lot of the Big Y supermarket on West Street in Pittsfield, according to a Pittsfield Police report. As it turns out, the purported drug deal was staged by the pair, who planned to rob the group.
Prosecutors believe Johnson was in the front passenger seat and shot Gamache, who was in the driver's seat, while Campbell and two passengers who made the trip with Gamache sat in the back seat.
But, witnesses, at least one of whom was in the car, did not identify Johnson as the shooter, instead referring to someone they were introduced to as "David."
From a juror's perspective, some of the state's earliest witnesses' accounts of the incident were questionable.
"You could tell there was very little honesty in what they were saying," said Ransom, 38.
While Johnson's role proved difficult to pin down, jurors heard a lot about Campbell.
Witnesses, including members of Campbell's family, testified that Campbell told them he had shot Gamache. During a police interview, Campbell admitted to pulling the trigger, though, at the time, Gamache was expected to survive. Another person in the car, Ian Lang, also identified Campbell as the shooter.
Campbell originally was charged as the shooter, but as part of his manslaughter plea last November, Campbell said he had only helped make the arrangements for the drug deal. He said it was Johnson who pulled the trigger.
Campbell pleaded guilty in November 2018 to involuntary manslaughter and other charges in Gamache's death. He is serving a sentence of 4 1/2 to six years in prison. Lang was sentenced in July to 2 1/2 years in jail, after pleading guilty to a perjury charge in the case.
ID a challenge
As the trial progressed, identifying Johnson as the shooter became a challenge for prosecutors.
One witness, Campbell's sister, was expected to testify that she saw Johnson with a gun before the robbery, but the judge prohibited that testimony because police hadn't asked her to identify Johnson from a photo array. The only basis for the identification was that she recognized him as a man she met at a party about 10 months before the shooting.
Another potential witness, Dakota Moretti, told police that Johnson admitted to him that he was the shooter. But, during trial, he recanted those statements and submitted a letter to the court invoking her Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate herself by testifying.
Yet another witness testified that the other person with Campbell was named "David."
But, it was Campbell's refusal to testify that finally might have done in the case.
Campbell also had asserted his Fifth Amendment right not to testify. Prosecutors unsuccessfully challenged that privilege and ultimately granted Campbell immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony.
When Campbell did take the stand Sept. 30, he declined to answer any questions — he refused even to identify himself — despite the threat of being charged with contempt of court.
At that point, Johnson's attorney filed a motion for a finding of not guilty, which was granted the next day by Judge Michael Callan.
"It really just looked like a complete lack of physical evidence," Ransom said. "Especially when they had witnesses that were wishy-washy and changed their testimony."
Only one option
Harrington said the refusal by witnesses, including Campbell, who testified before the grand jury but then refused to testify at trial undermined prosecutors' ability to prove their case.
"From the outset of the trial, we really only had one option, which was to prepare for trial and to present our case based on the prior testimony and evidence we had from the grand jury," Harrington said. "Up until the time those people refused, in court, to testify, we did what we could."
Frances Gamache agreed that Yorlano, who tried the case, did a good job with the evidence he was able to present. But, she was very dissatisfied with how the case was handled by the previous DA administrations.
Campbell could have been cited with civil contempt, which would have kept him in custody until he agreed to testify, Harrington said, but because he already was serving a prison sentence, that wasn't seen as an effective way to compel his testimony.
But this week, Campbell was arraigned on a charge of criminal contempt of court, which carries a maximum penalty of a year in jail. Harrington said she would push to have any sentence begin after he completes his current sentence.
Harrington, who noted that the prosecution began under the watch of a previous administration, said one of the first things her office did after she took over in January was to implement a policy of using written cooperation agreements with witnesses.
Campbell had no such agreement in place with the DA's office.
"Had that happened in this case, then things would have gone very differently," she said.
Bob Dunn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @BobDunn413 on Twitter and 413-496-6249.
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