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Saturday, January 19 , 2019, 4:58 pm | Fair 67º


Jurors to Begin Deliberating Murder Charges Against College Athletes

Ali Mohammed and Lavell White charged with fatal shooting of Terence Richardson in Santa Maria in 2014

Murder defendants stand in Santa Maria courtroom. Click to view larger
Defense attorney Lori Pedego, far left, stands next to her client, Ali Mohammed, while defendant Lavell White stands next to his attorney Michael Scott, far right. Jurors on Thursday will begin deliberating the murder charges against the two former Hancock College athletes. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

Jurors were set to begin deliberating Thursday on the fate of two former Allan Hancock College athletes accused of committing burglaries and robberies that culminated with a fatal shooting near the campus in late 2014.

The Santa Barbara County Superior Court trial of former basketball players Ali Mohammed, 22, and Lavell White, 25, neared conclusion with completion of closing arguments from the prosecuting and defense attorneys late Wednesday afternoon. 

Mohammed and White are charged with murder for the death of Terence Richardson, 23, of Santa Maria on Dec. 30, 2014, while he sat in a passenger seat of a vehicle with admitted drug dealer Ryan DePalma, the trial’s first witness on March 6.

Mohammed is accused of being the shooter while White allegedly was the mastermind behind robbing drug dealers and burglarizing residences.

In addition to murder, the pair also are facing six other counts related to robberies and burglaries. 

“You need to look at all the evidence and how it fits together in the big picture,” Deputy District Attorney Stephanie Savrnoch told jurors. “It’s not just one piece of evidence in this case. 

"All the evidence together in this case, when you look at it all, it’s very clear what was going on between Nov. 27, 2014, and Dec. 30, 2014,” Savrnoch added. “They were on a crime spree, and they weren’t going to stop.”

The trial included testimony from a series of former athletes, some of whom committed crimes with the defendants. In interviews with law enforcement officers after the shooting, those members provided varying accounts.

Savrnoch also presented multiple cellphone records showing calls and text messages between the defendants and witnesses discussing their need for money and marijuana 

There’s no doubt other people helped the defendants before, during and after the crimes, she added.

“The reason that it doesn’t matter is you’re here to decide whether these two are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, not if the witnesses are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” she said. 

If faced with two interpretations of evidence, Savrnoch called upon jurors to accept the reasonable interpretation.

“There really is only one reasonable interpretation of all the evidence we’ve heard in this case and that is that the defendants are guilty of all the crimes, and they are guilty of wasting Terence Richardson’s life,” Savrnoch said. 

The defense attorneys — Lori Pedego, who represents Mohammed, and Michael Scott for White — emphasized the differing stories provided by witnesses in interviews with law enforcement and while testifying during the trial.

With 17 years as a defense attorney, Pedego said she considered this among the most complicated cases due to the assorted testimony from various witnesses, many deemed accomplices.

“Make no bones about it, Mr. Mohammed is not guilty of these crimes,” Pedego said. “He did not burglarize houses. He did not rob drug dealers. He did not shoot anybody.”

She noted the other athletes who testified had motives to lie — avoiding jail. Testimony from any accomplices must be supported by independent evidence, she added.

"You can't corroborate accomplice testimony with each other and you can't corroborate accomplice testimony by a not-credible witness," Pedego said.

She also argued that the fact a crime occurred does not link the defendants to the burglaries, robberies and shooting.

“We’re not saying those things didn’t happen. We’re saying the identity of the perpetrator is at issue here,” Pedego said. “We’re saying that Mr. White and Mr. Mohammed were not the perpetrators of any of those crimes.”

In his closing argument, Scott said the case against the defendants relies on circumstantial evidence. 

“Is there proof beyond a reasonable doubt to convict Mr. White of any of the crimes charged, I would submit to you no,” Scott said. “Mr. White and I ask you to return verdicts of not guilty of all charges.”

Scott said the jurors can disregard all, part or none of the witnesses testimony if someone didn’t seem completely believable, 

“We have a ton of inconsistent statements,” Scott said. “That’s a factor you may consider in deciding whether or not the testimony is believable.”

He contended jurors should not believe the testimony of any of the former Hancock College athletes.  

Scott also said the case pitted former athletes from one sport against counterparts in another. 

“If you stand back and look at the composition of the witnesses, it’s the football players throwing the basketball players under the bus,” Scott said. 

After Judge James Voysey presents a few final jury instructions Thursday morning, the panel is expected to begin deliberations.

Most of the testimony in the trial occurred in Lompoc Superior Court with a goal of easing the Santa Maria clogged court calendar. However, the case has since returned to Voysey's Santa Maria courtroom.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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