Jury finds Philly man not guilty in Zabel murder case

Published 12:33 pm Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Marcellus Jones, in a 2009 police photo, refused to talk to investigators about the Beau Zabel murder and was found not guilty of Zabel's murder on Wednesday.

Marcellus Jones, in a 2009 police photo, refused to talk to investigators about the Beau Zabel murder and was found not guilty of Zabel’s murder on Wednesday.

By Joseph A. Slobodzian, The Philadelphia Inquirer

In a verdict that stunned courtroom spectators, a Philadelphia jury on Wednesday acquitted a South Philadelphia man charged in the 2008 slaying of aspiring Minnesota teacher Beau Zabel in a robbery that netted an iPod.

The Common Pleas Court jury of 10 women and 2 men deliberated three hours before acquitting Marcellus Jones of murder, conspiracy to commit robbery, robbery and two gun charges.

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Jones, 37, is already doing life in prison without parole in another murder connected to the Zabel slaying.

Beau Zabel

Beau Zabel

Jones, who shunned street clothes for the verdict and entered court in an orange prison jumpsuit, yelled “Thank you!” after the jury forewoman announced the verdict.

The verdict was especially stunning considering that Jones testified Tuesday in his defense and his prior murder conviction and five earlier robbery convictions were made known to the jury.

Jones, known as “Ant North” — a conflation of his middle name, Anthony, and where in the city he was born and raised — has been in prison since being convicted of murder in 2012 in the Sept. 6, 2008, killing of Tyrek Taylor.

Prosecutors said Taylor was Jones’ getaway driver in Zabel’s killing and that Jones shot the 19-year-old because he was talking about Zabel’s shooting and Jones feared he might tell police.

In often-rambling testimony in which he complained his trial was unfair, Jones denied involvement in Zabel’s or Taylor’s deaths.

For the family of the 23-year-old Zabel, who had moved to Philadelphia just six weeks before he was killed in preparation for a Drexel University teaching fellowship, the verdict was a disheartening end of a seven-year journey to get justice for their son.

His mother, Lana Hollerud, and stepfather, Terry Zabel, their daughter Brook and younger son Brice, and several other relatives sat silently in court, wiping tears as the verdict was announced.

Afterward, the family initially declined comment. Then, Terry Zabel stepped forward.

“I guess what I wanted to say was that we don’t hold anything against the city of Philadelphia,” Zabel said. “It was one person who did this. In general, the people of the city of Philadelphia have been overwhelming with their thoughts, their prayers and their offers of assistance.”

Zabel also praised the work of the District Attorney’s Office and the Philadelphia police and homicide detectives.

“The jury has spoken,” said Assistant District Attorney Jacqueline Juliano Coelho, who prosecuted with Tracie Gaydos. “That is our system of justice. We put in our evidence in the best possible way.”

The names of jurors — three white and nine people of color — are not made public in Philadelphia homicide cases. A staffer who returned a call to Judge Rose Marie DeFino-Nastasi said jurors were offered a chance to speak with the lawyers and reporters. The jurors declined and were escorted out after the verdict.

“This was a very difficult case,” said defense lawyer Richard J. Giuliani, who was often at odds with Jones, who once tried to act as his own attorney. Jones repeatedly questioned his lawyer’s strategy and often interrupted him and the judge.

“I always believed there were problems with the prosecution case,” Giuliani added.

Prosecutors said Jones came up behind Zabel about 1:30 a.m. on June 15, 2008, and shot Zabel while he walked home from his night job at a Starbucks at Ninth and South Streets.

Zabel died on the sidewalk in the 800 block of Ellsworth Street in South Philadelphia — a block from the apartment he had moved into just six weeks earlier after arriving from Austin, Minn.

Zabel’s slaying attracted national attention, but for five years there was little movement in the investigation, primarily because there was no DNA or other physical evidence linked to the killer.

A mother and daughter who lived in the house where Zabel died outside, testified that they heard a “boom,” looked out their windows and saw Zabel and then a man searching around the fallen victim.

But neither could give a detailed description of the shooter or identify Jones. Neither could a man at Eighth Street and Passyunk Avenue, who said he heard a shot and saw a man dressed in a white T-shirt and dark pants walking from Ellsworth.

Police also recovered video surveillance that showed Zabel walking in South Philadelphia and the man police believed to be his killer but the video was so grainy it was impossible to identify the suspect.

It was only after Taylor was shot to death outside his South Philadelphia home on Sept. 6, 2008, that there were developments in the cold case. Detectives got tips that Jones purportedly told relatives and friends he had to silence Taylor because he wouldn’t stop talking about how Jones had “killed the teacher.”

Ultimately, the jury heard often reluctant testimony from Jones’ sister and her longtime boyfriend, and a childhood friend and fellow prison inmate with Jones — all confirming Jones admitted killing Taylor and, by extension, Zabel.

Jones denied it all.

In his closing argument Tuesday, Giuliani urged the jury not to be swayed by sympathy over Zabel’s slaying. Giuliani attacked the credibility of the witnesses who testified about Jones’ alleged admission, whom he described as opportunists looking to curry favor with prosecutors or, for Jones’ sister, regain custody of her children.

Coelho argued that, despite criminal records and character flaws, the prosecution witnesses corroborated each other about what they said Jones admitted to them.

“Who is he going to confide in? Who is he going to tell that truth to?” asked Coelho in her closing statement.