By GREG JORDAN
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
After hours of weighing the evidence they saw and the testimony they had heard for four long days, members of a Mercer County jury found 27-year-old Princeton resident Marcus McKinley guilty of murder without recommendation of mercy in the death of the mother of his child.
The jury received the case and began deliberations in the mid-afternoon, and returned with the verdict at 8:45 p.m.
McKinley was charged with first-degree murder after the May 19, 2011 death of 18-year-old Ayana Patton.
Bluefield police discovered Patton’s body at the Opera House Apartments in downtown Bluefield. McKinley was later found in the Charlotte, N.C., area and brought back to West Virginia.
Friends and relatives of both the defendant and the victim filled the small courtroom of Judge Omar Aboulhosn. In some cases, people had to stand as they listened to emotional testimony. Barbara Patton, mother of Ayana Patton, quietly wept as a friend comforted her while Special Prosecutor Edward Kornish described her daughter’s final moments to the jury. McKinley himself often had his back to the gallery, his eyes focused away from the jurors.
Earlier that morning, Barbara Patton recalled for the jury how her daughter and McKinley started their relationship. She said that she did not approve of the match, and that McKinley would sometimes check Ayana out of high school by pretending to be her uncle.
McKinley and Ayana later had a baby boy, and Barbara Patton received custody of her grandson after authorities with the state Department of Health and Human Resources and Child Protective Services told the couple they had to stay apart to ensure the baby’s safety. Mercer County deputies and Bluefield police testified that they were called about domestic altercations involving the couple on more than one occasion.
Barbara Patton stated that her daughter and McKinley were on a cycle of breaking up and getting back together. Ayana later found a restaurant job, considered nursing school, and then found a job with a television provider. She was preparing to move into an Opera House apartment because she had been told that might help her regain custody of her child.
On the evening of May 18, Ayana borrowed the car and went to the apartment, Barbara Patton said. She normally returned to the Patton home by 3:30 p.m. However, despite repeated phone calls to her, Ayana had not returned when 10:30 p.m. arrived. When Ayana did answer, she whispered, “Okay, Mommy, I’m coming.” By 6 a.m. on May 19, Barbara Patton was calling her daughter repeatedly, but getting no answer, and even left a message warning she would call the police to report both Ayana and the car missing. Later than morning, she learned of her daughter’s death.
In his closing statements to the jury, Kornish said McKinley shot Ayana Patton after looking on her cell phone and discovering that she had started dating someone else. Patton was shot five times: three shots to the head, one to the chest, and one in a leg. Three of the shots were fatal.
“That’s very good shooting,” Kornish said. “That’s not random shooting. We would say, based on the facts, that’s murder in the first degree.”
McKinley’s attorney, Tom Czarnik, told the jury that the state was “speculating” about the way the gunshots were fired.
“You cannot tell what distance, in what order, or where Marcus or Ayana were standing,” Czarnik said of the gunfire. There was still reasonable doubt about whether McKinley had intended to kill Ayana when he went to the apartment; tests that could show the direction of the shots were not done.
Czarnik then stated that McKinley had been at the apartment for 12 hours, and there was no evidence that Patton did not want him there. Witnesses that morning had said that Ayana showed them stab wounds and recalled that Ayana feared McKinley would kill her, but other instances suggested that she did not fear him.
A Child Protective Services counselor, Jami Nunley, spotted McKinley and Patton dining together at a Bluefield, Va., restaurant, Czarnik reminded the jury.
“If Ayana was so manipulated, so afraid, why risk going to Applebee’s and being seen with Marcus if she could lose her baby?” he asked.
McKinley said in his own testimony that he had the gun for protection because members of Patton’s family had threatened him.
“He testified that he had been threatened, that he did not go up there to hurt her,” Czarnik said. “He couldn’t understand why they were fighting.”
Czarnik argued to the jury that his client’s case fit the criteria for voluntary manslaughter, not first-degree murder. “This is a crisis of anger and shock, and this is what the state has to disprove,” he said.