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Defendants try to distance themselves from killing of Washington County man

After listening to 35 prosecution witnesses testify over more than seven days, Michael "Cleveland Mike" Duncan and John Ira Bronson Jr. took the stand on Monday, trying to distance themselves from the 2003 slaying of John Newman.

Now, their fate is in the hands of a Washington County jury.

Duncan, 34, of Amherst, Ohio, and Bronson, 54, are charged with criminal homicide and criminal conspiracy to commit homicide in the Feb. 3, 2003, shooting of Newman outside his California home.

Bronson is a Monessen native who most recently spent time in a federal penitentiary on a conviction unrelated to the Newman case.

Duncan, Bronson and Howard Irwin of Charleroi were charged a year ago as a result of the Washington County grand jury investigation.

Last month, Irwin pleaded guilty to a third-degree felony count of hindering apprehension or prosecution and agreed to testify against Bronson and Duncan.

In exchange for his testimony, prosecutors agreed to dismiss the criminal homicide and conspiracy charges against him.

Newman died from a 9 mm gunshot in the head.

Prosecutors allege Newman was a drug addict and street-level dealer who agreed to conduct a controlled drug buy from Bronson.

After Bronson was arrested, he agreed to become a confidential informant for the state police. Instead, he allegedly sought to have Newman killed.

After the prosecution rested early yesterday, Bronson went first.

Bronson said he pleaded guilty to drug trafficking rather than face trial because, "I took responsibility because I was guilty."

Bronson said he sold 100 to 300 Oxycontin pills to Newman weekly. He said the victim never owed him money.

When arrested in October 2002, Bronson said he asked Newman if he set him up and Newman told him he would be "(expletive deleted) crazy" to have done so.

Bronson denied ever meeting Duncan, or prosecution witnesses Michael Bowman or Brian Dzurko. Bronson denied attempting to recruit Robert Berdar to kill Newman.

Bronson said he met Michael McCarthy at the Washington County Correctional Facility, calling the prosecution witness "a good poker player; a good bluffer." McCarthy testified last week that Bronson told him of a meeting in November 2002 in which the planning of Newman's murder was discussed. Bronson suggested McCarthy was hoping for a deal on five outstanding cases he faces in Washington County.

In cross-examination, Assistant District Attorney Darren Newberry asked how Berdar knew the specifics of Bronson's arrest but from him. Bronson suggested state police told Berdar.

"So all of these people are lying," Newberry said of a litany of prosecution witnesses.

"That's your opinion," Bronson said.

Duncan testified he met Irwin in Ohio, where his co-defendant's cousin lived. He moved to California Borough to begin selling cocaine for Irwin.

Duncan painted Irwin as violent when he did not get his way.

"Mr. Irwin was in charge," Duncan said. "Everybody knew Mr. Irwin was the boss."

Duncan said he never met Newman and spent the night of the slaying at the Filly Corral in Smithton. He denied participating in a meeting in which Newman's killing was allegedly discussed.

Duncan said when Irwin left Florida in March 2003, he took $2,500 owed him and left for Ohio.

"Did you kill John Newman?" defense attorney David Shrager asked his client.

"No, I did not kill Mr. Newman," Duncan replied.

In cross-examination, Newberry asked Duncan why he said he "did not whack" Newman, when first questioned by troopers.

"Well, he was dead. I figured they were not going to drive all of the way from Pennsylvania for a dead guy if he was not whacked," Duncan replied.

In closing remarks, Bronson's attorney, Keith Emerick, said, "If ever there was someone with a better reason to lie, it was Howard Irwin."

Emerick drew the ire of prosecutors when he said McCarthy was going to get a deal for his testimony.

"There's no evidence to that effect," Assistant District Attorney Josh Carroll said.

Emerick said just as society does not allow drug addicts to operate vehicles, the jury should not permit admitted drug addicts to drive the prosecution's case.

Shrager spent much of his closing remarks trying to paint witness Brian Horner, an admitted drug addict, as the shooter. He made an analogy between the case and the board game of "Clue."

"I accuse Brian Horner of murdering John Newman with a 9 mm Magnum in Newman's car," Shrager said. "Everything in this case points to that."

Newberry said Horner had no motive but Bronson did for arranging the hit.

Newberry defended the credibility of witnesses with admitted drug pasts.

"You're not talking about some random day," Newberry said. "You're talking about an execution-style killing in California, by all accounts a small town. This was a memorable day in these people's lives."

Newberry asked the jury to question why witnesses, with nothing to gain by it, would lie. He then asked the jury to use their own life experiences and common sense.

"In his opening, Mr. Shrager walked over and said 'Mike Duncan is one of us,' " Newberry said. "I can't walk over and say 'John Newman is one of us' because John Bronson and Mike Duncan played judge, jury and executioner."

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