Defense in Connellsville teen's fatal shooting wants suspect's statements to police suppressed
A former Philadelphia man accused in the shooting death of a Connellsville teenager refused to sign a form waiving his right to an attorney or to remain silent, according to a police officer who assisted with the investigation.
But police went forward with an interview in a small interrogation room at the Uniontown Police Station where Hasani Melene Simpkins instead verbally waived those Miranda rights, according to one of the officers.
“He refused to put his signature on paper,” testified Officer Jason Fidazzo during a hearing on a defense motion to exclude Simpkins' statements from his homicide trial. “However, he verbally agreed to speak to police.”
Simpkins, 21, is charged with criminal homicide, receiving stolen property and carrying an unlicensed firearm in the Nov. 21 shooting of Darrell Laki “Poppa” Ross Jr., 17, a Connellsville Area Senior High School student-athlete.
Police contend Simpkins shot Ross in a bedroom at 39 Murray Ave. in Uniontown, where Simpkins was staying temporarily, during a house party.
Police said Simpkins told them hours after the shooting that he had the gun in his hand as he sat in a chair behind Ross. Simpkins told police he fired the gun twice into his own leg, but nothing happened.
The weapon discharged on the third try, and the bullet struck Ross as he leaned forward in a chair.
In the motion seeking to suppress Simpkins' statements to police, defense attorney Wendy L. Williams argued the statements were involuntary because they were given “less than two hours after he had used an excessive amount of marijuana.”
During the hearing on Tuesday before Judge Linda Cordaro, Williams noted that a Uniontown police report notes that prior to giving any statements, Simpkins told at least one officer that he had smoked marijuana and was “so high, he passed out and woke up to find police standing over him.”
Fidazzo testified he was “in and out” of the room at various points during the interview. He could not recall if Simpkins made the statement, he testified, pointing out that the report referenced by Williams was prepared by another officer.
Fidazzo testified Simpkins did not appear to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol when he reviewed a rights form and waiver with the man prior to police questioning. Although Simpkins signed a portion of the form indicating he understood his rights, he refused to sign the waiver, Fidazzo testified.
Police conducted the interview when Simpkins instead gave verbal consent, Fidazzo testified.
“Did you ask why he refused to sign?” Williams asked.
“I don't believe I asked,” Fidazzo testified, noting that his role was only to ensure Simpkins understood his Miranda rights.
Another officer, Jamie Holland, testified Simpkins did not appear to be under the influence of marijuana. His eyes were not glassy or bloodshot, he testified, and he did not have “white flecks” on his mouth.
“Those are the tell-tale signs,” Holland testified. “To me, he didn't appear to be intoxicated to where he wouldn't be able to speak.”
Holland, who said he has dealt with many people who are high on marijuana as part of his job, testified he has never come across anyone who was unconscious or incoherent after having smoked marijuana. In addition, he said, there was no odor of marijuana in the cramped interrogation room.
“It would have taken over the entire room,” Holland testified.
Cordaro did not rule on the motion to exclude Simpkins' statements at trial. Simpkins is in the Fayette County Prison without bond.
Liz Zemba is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-601-2166 or firstname.lastname@example.org.