BR jury acquits man in 2009 murder

Advocate staff photo by ARTHUR D. LAUCK  Assistant DA Tracey Barbera, left, walks out of the courthouse with family members of Dustin and Beth Duncan on Thursday, in Baton Rouge. Charles Young was found not guilty on two counts of second-degree murder in the fatal shooting of Dustin and Beth Duncan. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by ARTHUR D. LAUCK Assistant DA Tracey Barbera, left, walks out of the courthouse with family members of Dustin and Beth Duncan on Thursday, in Baton Rouge. Charles Young was found not guilty on two counts of second-degree murder in the fatal shooting of Dustin and Beth Duncan.

A Baton Rouge man who served juvenile prison time for a 2003 murder was acquitted Thursday in the execution-style slaying of a young Denham Springs couple in 2009, just two months before the husband was to testify against another man at a drug trial.

An East Baton Rouge Parish jury of eight women and four men found Charles Young, 25, not guilty on two counts of second-degree murder in the killing of Dustin and Beth Duncan, 23 and 20, respectively.

Both of them had been shot twice in the head at close range inside their van in the 3400 block of Canonicus Street on the night of Jan. 7, 2009.

Young, who has been jailed in the 2009 murder case for more than 4½ years, also is currently serving a 137-month federal prison term for cocaine possession. He pleaded guilty to that charge in April 2009.

A second-degree murder conviction would have carried a mandatory sentence of life in prison.

“We’re just going to say justice was not done,” Beth Duncan’s uncle, who did not identify himself, said as he and other disappointed members of the victims’ families left the 19th Judicial District Courthouse in downtown Baton Rouge.

Young’s attorney, Gail Ray, said she was gratified the jury agreed with her argument that the prosecution’s case had to fall because it was built around two convicted and imprisoned felons — Tyrus McDowell and Joseph Nixon.

“If you can’t trust the messenger, you can’t trust the message,” she told the jury earlier in the day.

Prosecutor Tracey Barbera said the jury’s vote was 10-2. The panel deliberated for about three hours.

“Beyond a reasonable doubt is a very heavy burden,” the prosecutor said after court. “I’m disappointed, but I respect the jury’s decision.”

Young, who pleaded guilty in East Baton Rouge Parish Juvenile Court in 2004 to second-degree murder and was sentenced to juvenile life, was released when he turned 21 on Sept. 14, 2008 — less than four months before the Duncans were killed.

In the case in juvenile court, East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III has said Young was charged with killing a man during an armed robbery.

Barbera said the case involving the Duncans actually originated five years ago when Cedrick Kelly was arrested for allegedly selling Dustin Duncan a rock of crack cocaine on Aug. 11, 2008, on Alliquippa Street. Kelly was charged with possession with intent to distribute cocaine, and Duncan agreed to cooperate with police. Beth Duncan was not involved in that alleged drug transaction.

But on the night of Jan. 7, 2009, the Duncans returned to the same area and were gunned down on Canonicus Street.

“The Duncans had the audacity to return to that neighborhood. They did not deserve to die,” Barbera argued to the jury Thursday.

“Dustin Duncan was deemed a rat and it was made sure he would never enter a courthouse and testify against him (Kelly),” she said. “Beth Duncan was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Barbara contends Kelly, 32, also of Baton Rouge, paid Young to kill the Duncans.

Prosecutors dismissed second-degree murder charges against Kelly in August 2011 as well as the possession with intent to distribute cocaine charge in January 2012.

“To reinstate (a murder) prosecution and obtain a conviction against Cedrick Kelly at this time would be a huge challenge,” Barbera acknowledged Thursday after court.

Nixon, 45, a convicted and imprisoned felon with an extensive criminal record, testified Tuesday that he was with Kelly and Young inside a drug house on Alliquippa on Jan. 7, 2009, when Kelly put a bounty on the heads of Dustin and Beth Duncan to prevent Dustin from testifying against him in the 2008 cocaine case.

Young asked, “Where’s the money at,” during that meeting, Nixon said.

But on Wednesday, McDowell — another key prosecution witness — told the jury he falsely implicated Young and Kelly in the slaying of the Duncans because police threatened and coerced him.

He told police that he saw Young get into Dustin and Beth Duncan’s white van moments before it crashed into a tree on Canonicus.

Ray argued that Nixon, who is facing a possible life sentence as a habitual offender, and McDowell, who could not keep his story straight, provided all the reasonable doubt the jury needed to acquit Young.

“He wants to go from a career criminal to a professional witness,” Ray said of Nixon in her closing argument to the jury. “He’s a con man.”

McDowell also told police Young confided in him that he shot Beth Duncan first, then Dustin Duncan.

“How do you know who was shot first?” Ray said of McDowell, 33, in her closing argument. “Maybe you were the one in the van. Maybe it was personal information you had.”