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Trial opens in Washington Gardens slaying

December 02, 2004|by PEPPER BALLARD

pepperb@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - Prosecution witnesses who testified Wednesday during the first day of the felony murder trial of Azaniah Blankumsee said a party leading up to the March 14 fatal shooting of Jonathan Dennis was tumultuous even before shots rang out.

Blankumsee, 26, whose last known address before his arrest was 658 N. Prospect St. in Hagerstown, was indicted in June on charges of first-degree felony murder, first-degree assault, attempted second-degree murder, armed robbery and robbery among more than 40 counts in connection with the death of Dennis, 19, of Waynesboro, Pa.

In his opening statement, Washington County Deputy State's Attorney Joseph Michael told jurors that the state intends to prove that Blankumsee was involved in a robbery committed just before Dennis was shot and that Blankumsee "aided and abetted" in Dennis' death.

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Blankumsee "did not fire the fatal bullet," Michael told the jurors. "That's not the state's case. You're instructed to find out whether the defendant participated in this robbery, this murder."

Felony murder is a murder committed during the commission of a felony such as robbery, burglary or kidnapping.

"It is not necessary for the state to prove the defendant, in fact, killed the victim," Michael said in his opening statement.

Michael wrote on a dry erase board with red marker, listing and separating those at the party that night into a home team and an away team. The home team consisted of about 10 youths and young adults who arrived at apartment 958C at Washington Gardens Apartments that night to hang out and drink, he said.

The away team consisted of three men, one of whom was Blankumsee, who came "to crash the party."

When one of Blankumsee's attorneys, Assistant Public Defender Stephen Musselman, approached the jury for his opening statement, he took an eraser and wiped across the board where Michael listed home and away teams.

"It has nothing to do with teams," he told the jurors. "This is about an underworld."

Musselman said that the case is about "a place, where not just adults are thugs, but where children as young as 12 drink, smoke marijuana and pass out at people's apartments."

Musselman told the jurors that there are gangs in Hagerstown and Waynesboro.

Before the jury returned from a lunch recess, Assistant Public Defender Brian Hutchison, co-counsel for Blankumsee, made a motion for a mistrial, saying that Dennis' brother, who was in the courtroom for the opening statements, revealed to sequestered witnesses sitting in the hallway part of what Musselman said during his opening statement.

Washington County Circuit Judge Donald E. Beachley denied the motion for mistrial after being presented with witnesses who described the comments as brief and related to Musselman's gang reference. Beachley said opening statements are not considered evidence.

Michael told Beachley that following the comments, witnesses were taken to another courtroom under guard and were again told not to discuss the case among themselves.

The state's first witness after the recess, Mark Snyder, 19, testified that he was one of those at the party that night. He testified that at the party, he saw Blankumsee hold a .380-caliber gun to the head of a sleeping friend and later saw him get into a pushing match with another partygoer.

Snyder said that later, after Blankumsee left the apartment, Snyder's younger brother returned to the party to say that he had been robbed. Snyder said that he then went outside, along with Dennis and about four others, to meet a ride for a couple of the partygoers.

Snyder testified that when they went outside, he saw Blankumsee standing with three other men, one of whom had not been at the party earlier that night.

Blankumsee "took a gun out and we all started running back," he said.

Snyder testified that he "saw sparks flying out of the air and kept hearing the bang" from Blankumsee's gun as he ran to hide. He testified that Dennis was hit in the chest and friends dragged him up to a landing to perform CPR.

On cross-examination, Hutchison asked how many statements Snyder made to police. He asked him which hand Blankumsee used to hold the gun. Snyder first said that Blankumsee was holding the gun with his right hand, then said he was holding it with his left hand.

During that testimony, Blankumsee shifted a pen handed to him by Musselman between his left and right hand before scribbling on a sheet of paper using his right hand.

Blankumsee has been held at the Washington County Detention Center since late May.

Washington Gardens Apartments neighbors, Hagerstown Police Department officers and detectives, Dennis' mother and another partygoer testified Wednesday.

Michael said he plans to call about five more witnesses today and hopes to rest his case by noon.

The defense told nearly all of the prosecution's witnesses Wednesday that they might be recalled for the defense's case.

Beachley told jurors that the trial, which was originally scheduled for two days, likely will extend to Friday.

Eight men and four women were seated as jurors Wednesday out of a pool of 54 prospective jurors.

The trial is to resume today at 9 a.m.

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