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Witness links defendants to 2003 killing of John Newman

| Saturday, Jan. 21, 2012

Howard Irwin said he tried repeatedly to contact Michael Duncan for more than two years after the murder of John Newman.

When the two finally talked in 2005, Duncan explained how the California man was killed outside of his home on Feb. 3, 2003.

"He (Duncan) said Brian Horner brought him (Newman) to the car and Michael Duncan was in the car and he whacked him," Irwin testified.

Assistant District Attorney Darren Newberry asked him if Duncan explained why he did it.

"He said he (Newman) was a snitch," Irwin testified.

Irwin's marathon session on the witness stand highlighted testimony Friday in Washington County Court before Judge Janet Moschetta Bell.

Michael "Cleveland Mike" Duncan, 34, of Amherst, Ohio, and John Ira Bronson Jr., 54, are on trial on charges of criminal homicide and criminal conspiracy to commit homicide.

Bronson is a Monessen native serving time in a federal penitentiary in Lewisburg 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.

However, 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 Irwin.

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.

Irwin's much-anticipated testimony attempted to tie the suspects to the crime. He spoke evenly and calmly, even smiling when the judge called for one of several sidebars, asking if he needed to exit the witness stand - again.

Irwin said he knew Duncan for many years because the two men have relatives who live in the same neighborhood in Lorraine, Ohio. They later became drug associates.

Irwin said Duncan usually carried a handgun.

He knew Newman from high school, even playing basketball together.

"Did you ask to have John Newman killed?" asked Newberry.

"No," Irwin replied.

Irwin kept a safe in the California home of Gerald Hull, for which only he and Duncan had the combination.

But Irwin testified he only briefly saw Bronson - in Hull's home during a November 2002 meeting when killing Newman was discussed - before seeing him in the county jail more than eight years later.

Irwin said on that November 2002 night, Duncan asked him about Bowman and the possibility of "offing someone." He told Duncan not to get involved with Bowman, saying "he's no good."

Irwin said he left for Greensburg to meet a woman he was dating at the time. He brought her back to his apartment, where a meeting was going on. Irwin said he did not participate in the meeting.

Irwin said he left in early March 2003 for Daytona Beach, Fla., to attend bike week. When he came home, his apartment was a wreck because Duncan had left for Ohio and did not look after his dogs. When he returned, a 9 mm handgun was missing from the safe as well as money and cocaine.

They did not reconnect until 2005, Irwin said.

Asked why he did not contact authorities after Duncan's 2005 confession, Irwin said, "I didn't want to get involved."

Irwin said after he was arrested, he expected Duncan to clear his name. His attorneys initially wanted him to fight the case in court.

"I just wanted someone to step up and clear my name," Irwin said.

In cross examination, Irwin said he thought the November 2002 meeting was a drug transaction. It wasn't until years later that he learned the reason for the gathering.

Bronson's attorney, David Shrager, attempted to paint Irwin as a violent man, asking him about allegedly beating up an ex-girlfriend and a violent fight in which the victim later lost an eye.

"I've only had five fights in my life and I'm 41," Irwin said.

Asked if he called Duncan "a dumb hick," Irwin replied that he thought Duncan called himself that.

Shrager's cross examination of Irwin - which lasted much of the afternoon - became combative at time with prosecutors objecting to questioning. Their main objections concerned allegations that the defense attorney was making statements to the jury rather than asking questions and whether he was misrepresenting testimony.

But when Shrager interrupted another response by the witness, Irwin replied, "It's hard to give complete answers when I'm continually being cut off. Thank you."

Ultimately, Irwin explained inconsistencies in his statements to authorities over the years by saying, "I did not want involved in this situation - no way, shape or form. At my preliminary hearing, I wanted to take the stand. I didn't have anything to do with this situation and I thought he (Duncan) would do the right thing."

Earlier in the day, Michael McCarthy testified that while incarcerated in the Washington County Correctional Facility, Bronson told him a meeting took place at Irwin's Crescent Heights, Daisytown apartment. Irwin arrived after the meeting had begun. While in jail together, Bronson told McCarthy the meeting was about "offing John Newman."...

That jailhouse conversation was held Dec. 16, 2011. ...He spoke with state police at the jail the same day.

McCarthy said he was not offered anything for his testimony, even though he has five open cases in Washington County involving robbery, attempted robbery and theft by unlawful taking.

"I feel honesty is the best policy," McCarthy said. "I feel it's the best thing to do."

His attorney, Charles Carpinelli, also testified that McCarthy was not offered anything for his testimony.

Corrections records officer Capt. Chris Popeck presented documentation that Bronson and McCarthy were housed in the same unit at the time of the alleged conversation.

As he was escorted out of the courtroom by deputies, McCarthy turned his attention to the left, looked at Bronson's family, and smirked.

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