RAVENNA: Prosecutors used three words to open their case Wednesday in the Portage County retrial of a man accused of felonious assault and murder in the 2009 beating death of a 23-year-old Kent State University student.
“Fate or coincidence?”
According to undisputed facts, Christopher Kernich was punched in the back of the head, then kicked repeatedly after he fell down, during a street fight in Kent shortly after 2:20 a.m.
More than 40 young men and women, many admitting to police they had been partying and drinking on campus that night, were there when it happened.
Four years later, however, questions remain about whether a previously convicted defendant, Adrian Barker, or one of his two co-defendants, delivered the blindsided blow that led to Kernich’s death.
Barker, now 25, won a new trial early last year when the 11th District Court of Appeals overturned his 2010 jury convictions, along with his prison sentence of 15 years to life.
Common Pleas Judge John Enlow, the appeals court ruled, failed to properly instruct the original jury on lesser included charges of manslaughter and reckless homicide.
Standing before the jury box in Wednesday’s opening statements at Barker’s retrial, Portage County Assistant Prosecutor Connie Lewandowski slowly built the government’s case.
“Fate or coincidence?” were her first words.
Many wonder, she then said, about “the forces of our universe. Do things happen by chance, or are they part of some greater plan?”
Kernich, she said, gesturing toward the defense table as she spoke, “had the deadly misfortune of crossing paths with this man, the defendant, Adrian Barker.”
Sparked by a brief encounter on East Main Street, Barker “exploded into a violet and vicious rage, a rage that was unprovoked, uncontrolled and unexpected,” she said.
Barker ran up to Kernich, from some 15 yards away, and punched him in the back of the head, Lewandowski said. Barker then kicked Kernich, she said, “over and over, in the head and ribs, while he was unconscious.”
Kernich, a KSU student from Fairborn in southwest Ohio, died at Summa Akron City Hospital six days later of massive brain injuries.
Car misses pedestrians
The fight began when Barker, from Shaker Heights, and two college friends, all former University of Akron students, nearly hit Kernich and a group of buddies as the suspects quickly left a parking lot in a car.
It was Glenn Jefferson’s car — a white 1995 Honda Civic — and he was driving. Ronald Kelly, who was convicted of murder and felonious assault a month after Barker’s trial ended, was the other suspect.
“When police arrived,” Lewandowski told jurors Wednesday, “witnesses immediately pointed out Barker and Kelly as the culprits, and Jefferson as the driver.”
She said it was later, when all three suspects were inside the Kent police station, that a security video delivered what she called “extremely probative” evidence against Barker.
After officers had turned their backs on him, video captured him licking his thumbs and smudging suspected blood off his shoes, she said.
“There he is, on video, smudging blood off not one, but both of his shoes in multiple areas,” Lewandowski said, her voice ringing through the courtroom.
Multiple DNA tests performed at the state crime lab and the independent Lab Corp. of America showed Kernich’s blood was found on Barker’s shoes in three locations, Lewandowski said, and that a “mixture” of the victim’s blood and Barker’s was also found in three locations on Barker’s shirt.
In its opening statements, the defense pointed to what was described as chaotic circumstances on an extremely dark and “crazy night.”
“The scene was much different than the government painted. The scene was much different,” attorney John Q. Lewis told the jury. “It was a drunken mob of college kids that night.”
He emphasized that it will be vitally important for jurors to consider evidence “closest in time to the incident.”
Witness calls 911
Lewis then produced and played the first report of the crime: a recorded 911 call by a witness to the fight, KSU student Jacqueline Stricker. The first suspect Stricker described for the dispatcher had her saying: “It was a black guy in a red shirt with white pants on.”
When the dispatcher attempted to clarify her description, asking if the suspect had a white shirt, Stricker said, no, he had “a red shirt with white pants on.”
Undisputed facts, in courtroom photos shown to the jury, identify Barker wearing a short-sleeve white shirt. Kelly, who is black, was wearing a short-sleeve red shirt. Jefferson, who is white, was wearing a long-sleeve white shirt.
If Jefferson testifies at the retrial, Lewis said, evidence will show he admitted kicking and punching Kernich — after knowing his bond would be reduced and knowing, too, he would be charged only with obstruction of justice for lying about what happened.
“Oh, yeah, they have not charged Mr. Jefferson with anything but obstruction of justice,” Lewis told the jury. “You know why? They can’t charge Jefferson, because you know what that would mean?”
He said it would mean Jefferson was complicit in causing injuries that led to Kernich’s death.
Furthermore, police let Jefferson go on the night of the fight without collecting his clothes or jacket, Lewis said.
Yet several witnesses, he said, reported seeing Jefferson rip off the temporary license tag from his car that night. And he also was seen putting on his jacket after hearing witnesses tell police it was a white guy in a white shirt who punched Kernich, Lewis said.
Authorities still have not charged Jefferson with anything but obstruction, he said, because police too quickly made conclusions on the night of the fight.
“The government already formed its case,” Lewis said, “and told the press about it.”
Lewis, of the Cleveland law firm Tucker and Ellis, and co-counsels Roger M. Synenberg and Jon Oebker, confirmed during a break that they have taken on Barker’s case pro bono.
Testimony will resume in Enlow’s court Friday morning.
Ed Meyer can be reached at 330-996-3784 or firstname.lastname@example.org.