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Prosecution rests in Thomas Tyler murder trial

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Nov. 18—MOULTRIE, Ga. — The prosecution rested Thursday in the case of Thomas Lee Tyler, who is accused of shooting Shvensky Collins to death in 2017.

Much of the day was spent with prosecution witnesses, including the victim’s mother and the lead investigator, but it ended with defense witnesses who put a different spin on testimony heard on the trial’s first day.

Collins, 25, was shot to death about midnight May 8, 2017, in the yard of a residence in the 400 block of Seventh Street Southwest. Tyler, who was 27 at the time, was arrested May 25, 2017. He faces charges of malice murder, felony murder and aggravated assault, as well as three counts of possession of a firearm during commission of a crime.

Ongoing problems

Testimony continued Thursday from witnesses who said Collins had told them about threats Tyler had made against him, but none of them knew the source of the conflict.

“He kept saying, ‘That man keeps messing with me,'” his mother, Sheila Collins, testified. He told her about the trouble through the whole month of April, she said.

The victim’s older cousin, Willie Palmore Jr., said Collins had told him about the conflict and Palmore told him he’d speak with Tyler to get to the bottom of it, but Palmore was hospitalized with an infection and didn’t get to do so.

“He didn’t tell me until I was in the hospital that it was that severe,” Palmore said. “He wanted to come stay at the hospital with me.”

Palmore was released from the hospital May 6, two days before Collins was gunned down.

Physical evidence

After the state rested about 2:30 p.m., defense attorney Julius Collins moved for a directed verdict of not guilty. He said the state had failed to prove the case against Tyler because of a lack of physical evidence tying him to the crime.

Judge Gregory Voyles ruled the testimonial evidence was sufficient to let the jury decide the case.

Much of the state’s physical evidence was presented on Wednesday when crime scene investigator Klay Luke testified, but it was the testimony of GBI Agent Zach Johnson and expert witnesses on Thursday that showed how it was relevant.

Johnson discussed the autopsy report, which showed Collins had been shot four times in the back, buttocks and upper legs. All the entry wounds were from the rear, he said, and exit wounds were generally on the front of the body.

“In layman’s terms he was shot four times in the back?” prosecutor Ken Still asked.

“Yes, sir,” Johnson answered.

Two cell phones were confiscated from Tyler sometime after the shooting, and call logs were extracted from them by Lisa Maxwell, a digital forensics expert with the Thomasville Police Department. Maxwell testified about how the information was retrieved from the phones, but she said she is not involved in assessing the contents themselves. It’s up to the investigator to take the information she prints out and to determine what of it is relevant to the case.

Based on the reports Maxwell gave him, Johnson said a couple of things caught his attention. On the older phone, there was quite a bit of activity until about the time of the shooting. After that, no outgoing calls were made and approximately 41 incoming calls went unanswered. The newer phone’s log contained text messages consistent with activation the day after the shooting.

Jordan Schmitz, a DNA analyst with the GBI, testified that eight pieces of evidence were checked for possible DNA. None could be linked to Tyler.

Two of the pieces of evidence were submitted for advanced testing with software called True Allele that had the potential to identify DNA that was too low-level or too complex for standard procedures. It yielded no usable information, but attorney Collins questioned Johnson why other evidence was not submitted for the advanced test because it might have eliminated his client as a suspect.

Johnson said it’s partly a cost issue and partly that investigators didn’t expect a useful result.

“We have to articulate and justify any request [for a test],” he said. He said investigators looked at the facts of the case and saw no reason to ask for it. In fact, they did not initially seek True Allele testing on any of the evidence but decided to ask for it on two items as they were preparing for trial earlier this year, just to cover their bases.

The defense attorney also noted that investigators did not search Tyler’s house or the house of his mother, who lives across the street from where Collins was shot. Johnson — who appeared to be speaking in general, not necessarily about this specific case — said investigators must have probable cause to seek a search warrant, a process that might take many days; by then any incriminating evidence that might have been there has been removed. Officers charged Tyler 17 days after the shooting.

Who’s with Shvensky?

In the two days of testimony so far, both Collins’ mother and his aunt have said they heard him say Tyler had shot him. Sheila Collins was the first person out the door of the residence where she found her son mortally wounded. Gerwarney Fleming testified on Wednesday that he had told everyone in the house that “Squeeze” — Tyler’s nickname — had shot somebody. Sheila Collins said on Thursday that when she came out she got down on the ground beside her son and asked, “Did Squeeze shoot you?” and she said he responded, “Yeah.”

She left his side to run home and wake Marvin Wilcher, her boyfriend, and she called her sister, Sebrena Collins Robinson.

Robinson testified Wednesday that she ran from her house to the crime scene — about four blocks — and crouched beside Shvensky Collins. She said she asked him who shot him.

“He said, ‘Squeeze. Squeeze.’ I said, ‘I knew it,'” she told the jury.

Agent Johnson’s report was less clear about that, defense attorney Julius Collins said. It states that Robinson said she heard him say, “Squeeze. Squeeze,” but then allowed that he might have said, “I can’t breathe.”

Johnson said he had listened to the recording of that interview ahead of the trial, and based on that and his own recollection, he said the more Robinson thought about it, she became more adamant that Shvensky Collins had said, “Squeeze.”

But Wilcher’s story was a little bit different.

He said he was asleep and Sheila Collins woke him, screaming that Shvensky had been shot.

“I said, ‘Who shot him?’ She said, ‘Thomas Tyler,” Wilcher said.

When he arrived at the crime scene, Wilcher said a crowd had gathered, but he knelt beside Collins and found a pulse on the side of his neck. He said Collins was slightly blue and had shallow breathing.

“I stayed down there until paramedics arrived, then I got up and walked away,” he said.

He said Robinson was not there when he arrived, but he became aware of her being there at some point.

He said he asked Fleming who had shot Collins, and Fleming said he didn’t want to get involved. He said he asked him again and Fleming said, “Squeeze.”

The defense attorney emphasized that if Wilcher’s story is accurate, Robinson could not have been in a position to hear Shvensky Collins identify his killer the way she claimed.

When the attorney raised the contradictions with Johnson, though, the GBI agent was more accepting of the discrepancies because it’s a shocking and traumatic situation.

“This is moments after Ms. Sheila has walked out the door and found her child taking his last breaths,” Johnson said. “In my experience you have to take that into account.”

Defense calls 2 witnesses

After the defense’s motion for summary judgment was denied, defense attorney Julius Collins called two witnesses, each intended to undercut testimony from one of the prosecution’s witnesses.

On Wednesday, Gerwarney Fleming had testified that he changed his story about what happened the night of the shooting because he was afraid of Tyler. Initially he didn’t want to get involved, but when police started looking for him, he met with them and told them he saw Tyler firing a gun in the yard and later discovered that Shvensky Collins had been shot.

Later, he said, his brother took him to see Tyler, who put him on the phone with Julius Collins. With Tyler standing nearby, Fleming told the attorney he had lied about seeing Tyler fire the shots because of a dispute between them. Collins asked him to come to his office in Atlanta and he said he would.

The next day, two women he didn’t know showed up. He got in the car with them and they went to Atlanta. He met with the attorney alone, he said, and told him he had been smoking crack cocaine and after the shots started he said he saw Tyler shooting because he wanted to get even with him over their dispute.

He signed an affidavit to that effect, but he told the court that Julius Collins told him to sign it without giving him a chance to read it.

Then the two women brought him home, he said.

Later, he changed his story back and his testimony Wednesday was in line with what he originally told police.

The woman who drove him to Atlanta took the stand Thursday to contradict almost everything he said about the trip.

Jacqueline Lee said she was the driver and asked a friend to ride with her so she wouldn’t be alone with Fleming on the trip. She said she didn’t interact much with him; mostly she and her friend talked in the front seat while Fleming was in the back — which is consistent with what Fleming said the day before.

Lee is Tyler’s former girlfriend and they share two children together, ages 4 and 2. She said Tyler asked her to pick Fleming up and take him to the attorney’s office.

She said she was with Fleming the whole time he was meeting with Julius Collins, so he was not alone there as he had said.

Fleming said he was never sworn by a notary. Lee said he was.

Lee said she saw Fleming read the document before he signed it.

She affirmed that neither she nor anyone she was aware of had threatened Fleming or paid him to change his story and she said he never mentioned to her about being afraid of Tyler.

She said the attorney told Fleming he could get in trouble for changing his story — which Fleming had also acknowledged — but she said Fleming said he “just wanted to do the right thing.”

After Lee testified, the defense called Tyler’s sister, Deborah King, to the stand. King had been mentioned in passing during Sheila Collins’ testimony Thursday morning.

King said she and Sheila Collins went to school together and their families have always been close. Before the shooting, they’d get together, drink a couple of beers, listen to music and socialize, she said. After the shooting … “We’re still doing the same things we were doing beforehand,” she said. “We were laughing and having fun.”

King said it felt strange to be socializing with Collins when Collins thought King’s brother had killed her son. But, she said, Collins told her she didn’t really believe Tyler was capable of doing what he was accused of.

“She told me this more than once,” King testified.

Earlier in the day, Sheila Collins had also talked about her continuing friendship with King. She said she didn’t hold King responsible for what her brother did.

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