Accounts Conflict Leading Up To Racially Charged Shooting
WILKES-BARRE — Conflicting testimony continued Wednesday in the racially charged slaying outside a Pittston bar, with varying accounts of a purported assault moments before the shooting and discrepancies about how many people exited the bar before it happened.
Stephen Jamal Spencer, 31, is on trial over allegations that he murdered 32-year-old Christopher Williams outside Saints & Sinners Irish Pub early the morning of July 9, 2017 — shortly after Williams’ cousin refused to shake Spencer’s hand because he is black. The defense contends the shooting was a justifiable case of self-defense.
Testimony on Wednesday established that the handshake snub wasn’t the only act of racism Spencer experienced at the bar that night: When he later approached the Williams group of friends, Christopher Williams’ friend Michael Owens, 42, of Old Forge, told him to get back.
“(Racial slur), get to the other side of the bar,” Owens testified to saying.
Lauren Pieczynski, the bartender who was working that night, testified that she sensed trouble brewing, originating from the Williams group but then spreading to Henry Gift, a friend of Williams who was with Spencer and who got aggravated about the handshake snub.
“They were going to fight at some point,” she said.
Pieczynski testified that she observed Spencer and Gift leave through the Searle Street exit, then turned around and saw everyone from the Williams group had left the building through the Center Street exit. They had left all their belongings on the bar, she said.
“Their clothes, money, keys, was all on the bar,” she said.
The testimony contradicted previous statements that only Williams, his cousin and his cousin’s girlfriend had left the bar around that time. Cousin Marty Williams and his then-girlfriend Alaena Swingle claimed to have been walking Christopher Williams home to his grandmother’s house a couple blocks away, an outing they said was unrelated to Spencer and Gift’s departure.
Gift, 31, of Pittston, told the jury that Spencer, his friend and neighbor, had been a little ahead of him leaving the bar. When Gift reached the bottom of the steps, he was attacked from behind by two people he didn’t see, he said.
The attack — which Gift sad he believed was motivated because he “was with a black guy at a bar” — left him with a black eye and was only interrupted when Gift heard the gunshot Spencer fired from up ahead on the sidewalk, he said.
Gift maintained he thought Spencer’s actions had saved his life.
“He stopped the attack on me,” Gift said.
But two witnesses who were arriving at the bar at the time of the shooting testified they were in the same spot of the purported fight when the shot went off, and they didn’t see anything.
Pittston resident Ryan McLean, 31, testified that as he walked down an alley alongside the bar, heading toward the Searle Street entrance, he heard arguing. When he got to the top step of the threshold — a few feet from where Gift said he was attacked — he heard the shot but didn’t see any fight in progress, he said.
When he looked around the corner to the sidewalk on Searle Street, he saw just two people: a man on the ground and a man standing with a gun, he said.
Testimony is continuing.