Desmond Pittman-Ross sat on the witness stand Tuesday and told a judge how he watched fellow gang member Lonta Burress Jr. shoot and kill another teen as the boy pleaded for his life.
General Sessions Court Judge Bob Moon found enough evidence in the testimony of Pittman-Ross and others to determine probable cause against the 17-year-old Burress. He sent the case to the grand jury for a possible indictment on a criminal homicide charge.
While Chattanooga police Detective Michael Wenger testified during the preliminary hearing, Moon had an officer stay with Pittman-Ross in the hallway. Hamilton County Assistant District Attorney Steve Smith said the boy had been threatened.
Pittman-Ross, 16, dressed in a gray Thundercats T-shirt and knee-length red athletic shorts, testified that he and a friend he knows only as “KJ” were walking through the “cut,” an opening into the cul-de-sac of 900 Taylor St., the morning of June 1.
The pair saw Burress and “P-Nut,” who were “Rollin’ 60’s” gang members, a Crips-affiliated branch. Pittman-Ross testified that Burress asked P-Nut and KJ if he could shoot Darrius “Little D” Townsend, who stood down the street on the right side of the cul de sac. The pair said that was Burress’ choice, Pittman-Ross testified.
As the two walked on, they heard a gunshot, he said. From about 50 feet away, he said he saw Burress standing over Townsend, who was on his back, his hands in the air pleading, “Don’t do me like this, cuz.”
Pittman-Ross testified that Burress fired twice more.
The Hamilton County medical examiner’s report tells more. Townsend likely twisted his upper body to his right. A bullet struck him near his left ear, another pierced his left shoulder blade.
Burress ran into the treeline and Pittman-Ross said he ran to a friend’s house.
Burress sat in the courtroom, alternately talking with his private defense attorney, Kevin Loper, and looking either at the witness stand or at his shackled wrists in his lap.
On the stand, Pittman-Ross said his fellow gang members told him not to testify. The hearing date was moved twice when police couldn’t find Pittman-Ross.
During cross-examination, Loper asked how Pittman-Ross could be sure his client shot Townsend because he was more than 50 feet away and it was dark.
“We in the same gang. We see each other almost every day,” Pittman-Ross answered, frustrated.
Loper questioned why it took Pittman-Ross nearly 18 days to come forward with information, saying it happened only after he was detained when police saw him tucking a 9 mm pistol into his waistband shortly after the Riverbend Festival fireworks show.
“Because they did it to him, they could do it to me, too,” Pittman-Ross testified.
He estimated that there were 500 members of the “Rollin’ 60’s” in the local area.
Loper asked why Burress would have shot Townsend, and Pittman-Ross said he’d heard that Burress had been stealing from Townsend. The victim had talked about getting a gun and that he would kill Burress if the thefts kept happening, Pittman-Ross testified.
In the hallway outside the courtroom, Townsend’s mother, Laronda Townsend, wiped tears from her eyes and put her sunglasses back on.
“It didn’t have to be this way,” she said.
Laronda Townsend said she wants to start a foundation called Mothers Against Senseless Killing to try to prevent future violence. Throughout each of the three court hearings, she’s been surrounded by a dozen or more family and friends, many wearing white T-shirts with Townsend’s name and photograph.
The criminal homicide charge is not the only one that Burress is facing. He was arrested in connection with a Dec. 7 school bus stop shooting. No one was injured in that incident, but he faces aggravated assault, evading arrest, reckless driving and other charges in an Aug. 11 court date.
Burress also was arrested in connection with the March 2010 Coolidge Park shooting where five in a crowd of hundreds were wounded. Prosecutors dropped charges when a witness changed testimony in the Juvenile Court proceedings against him.
Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...