Sentence upheld for man convicted in 2015 shooting in New Stanton motel
A state appellate court rejected a McKeesport man’s argument that his 2016 murder conviction for shooting a man in a New Stanton motel should be overturned.
Christopher Smarr, 22, claimed a Westmoreland County judge’s decision permitting a witness to testify while wearing a scarf over her face potentially influenced jurors.
A three-judge state Superior Court panel this week upheld the conviction and the 45-year-to-life prison sentence for Smarr in the March 14, 2015, fatal shooting of Brandon Gray, 31, of New Kensington, at the Garden Inn in New Stanton.
Smarr was convicted of first- and second-degree murder for killing Gray during a drug deal and robbery. Testimony at trial indicated that the shooting happened as part of a ‘turf war’ between rival drug dealers, the appellate court panel said in its 25-page opinion.
Smarr had asked the conviction and sentence be overturned in part because Common Pleas Judge Meagan Bilik-DeFazio permitted witness Janay Brown to testify at trial wearing a scarf that covered her face except for her eyes.
Smarr’s defense attorney, Michael DeMatt, objected when Brown took the stand, arguing that the scarf prevented jurors “from seeing her demeanor.”
During a conference on the issue, Brown said that she covered her face because of her Muslim religion.
Assistant District Attorney Adam Barr argued at the trial that, despite the scarf, jurors could view Brown’s demeanor “through her body actions, through her arm movements, her voice, frustration, lack of frustration, all of that came out with her when she testified on the stand.”
“The court ruled at trial that the scarf was ‘a bit transparent,’ and pulled tight such that the jury could adequately judge Brown’s demeanor,” the appellate court panel wrote.
Smarr also argued in his appeal that jurors were unfairly permitted to listen to testimony from alleged drug dealer, Jeffrey Patterson, about Smarr’s possible involvement in a robbery about one hour before the fatal shooting.
The appellate court ruled that Bilik-DeFazio did not abuse her discretion in allowing testimony about the robbery.
“Although Smarr was not charged with robbing Patterson, details related to that robbery corroborated the other evidence proffered by the Commonwealth regarding the turf war going on between rival drug dealers at the Garden Inn that night, and established that Smarr, at the very least, had been involved in multiple drug sales that formed part of the conflict. … Smarr was able to cross-examine Patterson on the fact that he could not identify Smarr as his robber,” the appellate panel said in its decision.
The judges also noted that laws permit “evidence of a prior crime … as evidence of the defendant’s motive to commit the instant crime, if the crime currently being considered grew out of or was in any way caused by the prior set of facts and circumstances.”
Smarr was the first person sentenced in the county under the state’s new guidelines governing how juveniles are sentenced in murder cases. Because Smarr was 17, just weeks shy of his 18th birthday, at the time of the homicide he was ineligible for a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole for the first-degree murder.
Adults convicted of first-degree murder face mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole.
Paul Peirce is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paul at 724-850-2860, [email protected] or via Twitter .