Day 5: DNA, bullets take spotlight in Rahmael Holt murder trial
No DNA or fingerprints place Rahmael Holt at the scene of New Kensington police Officer Brian Shaw’s murder, according to testimony Friday in Holt’s ongoing capital murder case in Westmoreland County Court.
Testimony from another expert witness called into question the ability of a witness to identify the type of gun he claimed to have seen Holt carrying as a .40-caliber. That’s the same type believed to have been used to shoot Shaw, based on cartridge casings and bullets that were recovered nearly two years ago.
Shaw was shot and killed Nov. 17, 2017, while pursuing a suspect fleeing from a traffic stop on Leishman Avenue. Prosecutors said the man who fled from an SUV and fired six shots at Shaw, hitting him three times, was Holt.
Holt has maintained his innocence.
Holt was arrested four days after the shooting in Pittsburgh’s Hazelwood neighborhood. Clint Thimons, a member of the Pittsburgh Police SWAT team, testified that Holt was arrested after walking out of the house, and that he appeared nervous and overwhelmed.
Holt’s trial ended its fifth day Friday. Prosecutors, led by District Attorney John Peck and assistant Jim Lazar, did not rest their case.
The trial is scheduled to resume Tuesday, after the Veterans Day holiday Monday.
Friday’s testimony ended emotionally with former New Kensington police Chief Jim Klein, who Shaw served under, reading the oath of office Shaw took just four and a half months before he was gunned down.
Forensic expert: DNA insufficient to ID
Allison Miller, a forensic DNA scientist with the state police, testified there was not enough DNA found in the front passenger area of the Jeep that Holt is alleged to have jumped out of to make an identification.
Six .40-caliber bullet casings were recovered from the church parking lot where Shaw was shot. Miller testified there was not enough DNA on them to make an identification from them, either.
Tavon Harper’s DNA was found on a steering wheel cover in the Jeep, Miller testified. Harper has testified he was driving the SUV that night, that he saw Holt with a gun that day, and that Holt jumped out as Shaw was following them. After Holt got out, Harper testified he continued driving home.
Harper testified that he sold cocaine to Holt that morning, and later marijuana that he bought for Holt in McKeesport.
Cellphone, text records track Holt, associates
Glenn Bard, an expert in cellphone and computer forensics, offered testimony that cellphone tower records support Harper’s testimony regarding his whereabouts that day.
Bard testified about communications between other phones belonging to Holt’s relatives and friends, showing them in contact before and after the shooting.
Prosecutors have alleged a conspiracy to get rid of Holt’s gun and hide him.
Bard testified he was not able to get into a phone found behind a Victoria Avenue home, which prosecutors contend Holt was using and dropped there. Bard said the phone had been used for calls and texts throughout the day of the shooting until going completely dead shortly before 9 p.m., about an hour after Shaw was shot.
Westmoreland County Detective Ray Dupilka showed text messages claimed to be between Holt and Marcel Mason. Mason is a cousin who lived in Duquesne. That’s where prosecutors say Holt stayed briefly after the shooting before Mason and Aysa Benson learned Holt was wanted and told him he had to leave.
In messages from Nov. 20, 2017, that Dupilka read in court, Holt tells Mason to erase information in his phone and get rid of jeans he left at their home because his state identification card was in it. Police found the jeans with Holt’s ID and Rivers Casino card later that night.
Benson took Holt to a relative’s home in Hazelwood, where he was later arrested.
Bullet evidence scrutinized
The six spent bullet casings that were found in the parking lot where Shaw was shot came from the same gun, testified Robert Hagins, a retired state police corporal and former forensic firearm tool mark examiner.
All six bullets were recovered, Hagins testified.
Hagins testified he was able to identify four of the six as .40-caliber and that they had been fired from the same gun; the other two were too badly damaged for those determinations to be made.
Of the four that were identified, three had struck Shaw. He was shot twice near his left shoulder, causing fatal injuries, while the third hit the back of his bulletproof vest. The fourth hit the second floor of a house across Leishman Avenue from the parking lot.
Of the two that were damaged, one hit the porch of the same house, while the other ended up in a planter in front of another home, according to previous testimony.
Hagins said there’s no way to determine whether a fired bullet came from a particular cartridge; however, he testified the bullets are consistent with the type loaded into those casings.
Where’s the gun?
The gun that was used to kill Shaw has not been found.
Authorities previously have suggested Holt’s cousin, Lisa Harrington, may have removed the suspected murder weapon from a home on Victoria Avenue where Holt stayed. She is charged with hindering Holt’s apprehension.
Michael Luffey, who lived in the Victoria Avenue home, testified he previously had seen Holt in possession of a gun he identified as a .40-caliber based on his own knowledge of guns. Luffey testified he once saw Holt place a gun on the dining room table, and another time saw a gun in his waistband but wasn’t sure if it was the same one.
Under questioning by Holt’s lead defense attorney, Tim Dawson, Hagins testified it would be difficult for a person to identify the caliber of a gun from a distance just by looking at it. Hagins said he identified an example gun in the courtroom as a .40-caliber by seeing a marking on its chamber.
When questioned by Peck, Hagins said such a determination would at best be an “educated guess.”
Other gun-related issue
Hagins also testified regarding “slide bite,” which can happen when a person isn’t holding a semi-automatic properly and the gun’s slide comes back when fired. It’s possible to tear skin between the thumb and index finger.
Some witnesses have testified to seeing Holt with a bleeding wound to one of his hands the night of the shooting; others have said they saw no such injury.
Thimons said he didn’t remember seeing an injury to Holt’s hands when he was arrested.
Lazar said in court that prosecutors and the defense have stipulated that Holt’s fingerprints were not found on the cartridge casings or steering wheel cover in the Jeep. They also agreed that on Nov. 17, 2017, Holt had been prohibited from possessing or using a firearm since May 2012.
Brian C. Rittmeyer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Brian at 724-226-4701, [email protected] or via Twitter .