Murder trial under Cook gets a new day in court

News-DemocratApril 7, 2014 

— A retrial granted to a 55-year-old man convicted of first-degree murder during an earlier trial which was presided over by former judge Mike Cook had testimony Monday from a pawn shop owner who, even at gunpoint, refused to open a safe.

Neil Scognamiglio, 77, said that on Aug. 27, 2011, during a robbery by two armed assailants at his shop in East St. Louis, he refused to open a safe containing cash and jewelry. He testified he had been robbed before, a crime that almost put him out of business.

"It was a heartache and a headache for six months," he said from the witness stand.

Scognamiglio shot and killed 34-year-old Correy Ransom as Ransom was leaving the store. The store owner testified he fired twice, hitting Ransom, who wielded an automatic pistol, once in the back of the head. He said he fired because Ransom appeared to be reaching up to lock the door to the street and possibly to return and force him to open the safe.

The pawn shop owner said the robbers got away with about $1,300 in cash and jewelry.

Ransom's alleged crime partner, Gregory Muse was charged with murder under an Illinois law that allows an accomplice to be prosecuted for a death if it occurs during an underlying felony such as armed robbery.

The trial of Muse is the second murder retrial ordered by St. Clair County Circuit Judge Robert Haida, based on defense motions that defendants did not get a fair trial because Cook, an admitted heroin addict, was under investigation by the FBI.

Brendan Kelly, the St. Clair County state's attorney, has said that he was under orders from the U.S. Attorney's office not to reveal the existence of the investigation.

Cook, 43, who pleaded guilty in federal court to misdemeanor heroin possession and being a heroin addict in possession of firearms, was sentenced last month to two years in what is likely to be a federal prison camp. He was not armed when arrested May 22 in Belleville but kept weapons at a hunting camp and at his home. Cook has been ordered to report to prison on May 28.

On April 21, a new trial for accused murderer William Cosby, 29, of East St. Louis, is scheduled to begin in Haida's courtroom. Cosby is accused of shooting a man to death outside an East St. Louis bar in 2012.

Muse's defense attorney, Sara Rice, stated Monday in her opening statement that her client cannot be guilty of murder because he didn't commit the robbery.

During cross-examination of an Illinois State Police crime scene specialist, she elicited testimony that none of Ransom's blood was found in the pawn shop vestibule or on the door to the street. Ransom's body was found on the sidewalk, a foot or two from the doorway.

Scognamiglio took the stand and identified Muse as one of two men who robbed him at gunpoint and the one who ordered him to open the safe. He stated that Muse and Ransom had come into the shop the day before, indicating that they wanted to buy jewelry, which the owner set aside for them.

Muse was also identified as the robber by two store employees, who also were held at gunpoint.

East St. Louis Police Department Detective Thomas McClellen, who was a patrolman when Ransom was killed, testified that he arrested the defendant about a block away from the pawn shop, 15 or 20 minutes later. McClellen said Muse held a blue, cloth bag that contained loot and the pawn shop owner's wallet.

When arrested, the officer said Muse told him, "Man, are you gonna do me like this? Those are white folks back there. I'm a brother."

Contact reporter George Pawlaczyk at gpawlaczyk@bnd.com and 239-2625.

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