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Guilty verdict for man accused of killing 'Skeeta' Smith

A Charlottesville jury has convicted Tadashi Demetrius Keyes, now 39, of killing the friend who was, ironically, trying to help him get a job with an anti-violence group. The seven-man, five-woman jury returned Thursday after less than three and a half hours of deliberation with verdicts of first-degree murder and a firearms charge in the Jan. 28 slaying of 36-year-old Eldridge Vandrew “Skeeta” Smith.

“The evidence was overwhelming,” said prosecutor Nina-Alice Antony, “and the jury wrestled with that and was able to bring back the verdicts we just heard.”

The trial, lasting three days, was an admittedly circumstantial case but one with an unusually vast array of evidence. These included a discarded gun and an allegedly muzzle-burned sweatshirt plus phone calls, text messages, and nearly two dozen video recordings. The tapes showed Smith in the presence of his alleged killer up to the final four minutes before his life was cut short inside his own sport utility vehicle by a 14-shot fusillade from a 9mm pistol.

The defense called just one witness, Charlottesville Police detective Ian Haug, who had earlier testified as a prosecution witness. Defense attorney Bryan Jones pressed Haug to concede that at one point a typed evidence log sheet listed two pieces of evidence by the same number.

Jones dramatized his point in his closing by pouring some dyed water from one beaker into a beaker of clear water to suggest that inaccurate numbering could contaminate evidence.

But Antony pushed back by saying that someone misreading someone’s handwriting, what Haug called a “clerical error,” didn’t contaminate the evidence.

Jones, however, told the jury in his closing that police developed “tunnel vision” that fixated on his client to the exclusion of other possible suspects, and he offered a litany of alleged missed opportunities:

■ He mentioned that an interview with a Ruckersville woman, the last legal owner of the gun and who claimed it got stolen, ended after the woman professed no knowledge of the defendant.

■ He alleged that a fingerprint lifted from a door of the SUV was never tested over fears that the case would fall apart.

■ He mentioned that police failed to identify and interview two people seen interacting with Keyes and Smith at a convenience store — including one who briefly sat in the back of Smith’s SUV.

■ He said that police should have tried to obtain the phone as well as the pants and other clothing his client had that night.

■ And Jones reiterated his earlier claim that a car driving in the vicinity of the crime should have been tracked down and not called “irrelevant,” as the main investigator, Christopher Raines, did on the trial’s second day.

“If people are not bringing him evidence, then Detective Raines is not collecting evidence,” said Jones. “Every time a lead directed him away from Tadashi Keyes, he dismissed it as irrelevant.”

“This is a circumstantial case,” continued Jones. “We don’t just not have motive; we have the opposite of motive.”

Antony conceded that the prosecution could not demonstrate why one friend would kill another.

“There’s no dispute this is a circumstantial case,” Antony said in her closing. “But every single piece of evidence makes it crystal clear that Tadashi Keyes killed Eldridge Smith.”

Antony told the jury that finding the killing to be premeditated might be their largest hurdle since the prosecution’s array of video did not include video of what transpired in the car in the final minute to prove premeditation.

“But I can play for you what it sounds like,” she said.

“It sounds like 14 gunshots ringing out in the night,” said Antony,as she once more cued up a neighbor’s Ring doorbell-captured audio of the 14-shot fusillade. “It sounds like 14 independent, willful, deliberate pulls of that trigger.”

She reminded the jury that police said they found six shell casings inside the vehicle and seven more outside.

“This didn’t come from a vehicle driving by,” said Antony. “This comes from inside the vehicle.”

The only new piece of prosecution evidence presented on the trial’s final day was a 43-minute interrogation video of the suspect made by Charlottesville Police investigator Ronald Stayments who came to court with that video.

While the video screen was positioned with its back to the gallery and while much of the audio played at a level too low to be heard beyond the jury box, a few snippets came through.

“All I’m asking for is the truth,” Stayments could be heard imploring Keyes.

“I didn’t kill him,” said Keyes.

“You lied,” replied Stayments. “That’s where we’re at, man.”

Antony explained in her closing that Keyes claimed in the video to have left Smith’s car when it stopped on Oakmont Street, where both men grew up and where Keyes was then living, about an hour before the shooting. Keyes’ claim of an early exit was undercut by subsequent video from the Sunshine Supermarket showing the two men together just four minutes before the gunfire.

Antony urged the jury to rewatch the interrogation video when deliberating.

“Watch his demeanor,” said Antony. “Watch his reaction. He’s completely unfazed by what is happening, completely nonplussed.”

Antony then recounted Aesop’s fable of the farmer and the viper, which, in Antony’s telling, featured a compassionate woman nursing an injured viper back to health only to be fatally bitten by the viper.

“As she lay there dying,” said Antony, “she asks the serpent, ‘Why after all this kindness, all this compassion, did you bite me?’”

“When you picked me up,” the serpent supposedly replied, “you knew what I was.”

Antony narrated that fable as the bulk of her rebuttal, the Commonwealth’s last word, rather than trying to refute the doubts sewn by Jones.

Jones declined comment after the jury’s decision, but Antony told reporters the verdict was a relief.

“Relief that we had been able to bring justice to Eldridge’s family,” she said outside. “But at the end of the day a case like this is very hard because we can’t bring back Eldridge. It’s a very bittersweet verdict.”

Antony said she was encouraged by the “droves” of community members who kept the gallery nearly full throughout the trial.

Among them was Bryan Page, one of the leaders of the B.U.C.K. Squad, the anti-violence group that Smith belonged to.

“Nobody wins in this,” said Page. “We lost somebody who was trying to fight the gun violence.”

Retired Judge H. Thomas Padrick Jr. ordered a pre-sentence report for Keyes and set sentencing for Jan. 24.

That pre-sentence report will likely note something that went unmentioned in court: that records show that Keyes spent nearly two decades in federal prison on a crack cocaine trafficking charge before his release last year.

As fists pumped joyfully into the air and as Smith’s mother dabbed her eyes with a tissue as the verdict was read, Keyes did as he’d done throughout the trial. He stared ahead with no obvious emotion.


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