BELLEVILLE — Public defenders Erin Conner and Sara Rice faced a huge challenge: Their client was identified by three robbery victims, a cop caught him minutes later a block away clutching a bag of loot and he made incriminating statements to police during interrogation.
While the two defense attorneys conducted a spirited defense that brought out numerous contradictions in witness testimony, in the end St. Clair Circuit Judge Robert Haida described the evidence against 55-year-old Gregory Muse as "overwhelming."
During the trial, Assistant State's Attorney Steve Sallerson had the last argument when he told Haida that Muse would have to be "the unluckiest man in the world" to be innocent after being identified by eyewitnesses and found to be in possession of a cloth sack containing cash, jewelry and the store owner's wallet.
At the conclusion Tuesday of a two-day bench trial without a jury, Haida found Muse guilty not of robbery but first-degree murder.
Muse was tried under a provision of state law that allows a murder charge to be brought if anyone is killed during a forcible felony like armed robbery.
Correy Ransom, 34, who robbed Pawn Pros pawnshop in East St. Louis with Muse, was shot to death by the store owner as the two armed men exited the store with $1,300 in cash, plus gold rings and necklaces.
Because Haida also found that Muse was eligible for a firearms penalty enhancement even though his pistol was not recovered, he faces 35 to 75 years behind bars and must serve every day. Even at the low end of the sentencing range, Muse will be 90 years old when released on parole.
Sallerson said prosecutors will move for a hearing that could qualify Muse for a sentence of natural life.
Muse is the first of two murder defendants to be retried as a result of Haida's ruling that the defense in both earlier trials should have been told that former judge Michael Cook, who presided over both cases, was the target of an FBI investigation. Cook's was arrested in May outside his drug supplier's house in Belleville on heroin possession and weapons charges. He has been sentenced to two years in a federal prison and must report for incarceration on May 28.
A retrial on a murder charge for William Cosby is set for April 14 also before Haida. He is charged with shooting a man to death outside an East St. Louis bar in 2012.
Brendan Kelly, the state's attorney, has said he was under orders from a federal judge not to divulge the investigation of Cook and others in what turned out to be a courthouse drug scandal that took the life of newly named Associate Judge Joe Christ from a cocaine overdose last year and resulted in imprisonment on conspiracy to distribute cocaine charges for former probation officer James Fogarty.
Lovie Ransom-Ewing, the mother of Correy Ransom, said she attended the first trial under Cook and was present during the entire second trial under Haida.
"I don't believe he got a fair trial the first time around," she said, "but he did this time. A lot more stuff came out in this."
Ransom-Ewing said she believes the robbery was Muse's idea, which was supported by the witnesses held at gunpoint in the pawnshop who testified that the older of the two robbers seemed to be in charge.
"My son was no angel," she said, "but he was no robber. Gregory Muse coerced my son into doing that robbery."
Contact reporter George Pawlaczyk at email@example.com or 618-239-2625.