D191113 cowan trial arguments

Cedric Cowan, 20, is escorted Tuesday to the Morgan County Courthouse, where he faces charges of capital murder and robbery. [DAN BUSEY/DECATUR DAILY]

Three men testified they were robbed at gunpoint at an elementary school playground in May 2015, on the opening day Tuesday of the capital murder trial of Cedric Cowan.

Cowan, 20, is one of four defendants, including his older brother, charged in several robberies and in the shooting deaths of Joshua Davis, 25, and Antonio Hernandez-Lopez, 27, and is the only defendant who has not yet been sentenced. Cowan was 16 at the time of the crimes and faces a maximum penalty of life imprisonment without parole.

Hunter Nelson, 23, said in his testimony that he was hanging out on May 15, 2015, with his cousin, Dylan Jones, and friend, Phillip Garland, first at a Sonic Drive-In, before moving on to the playground at Julian Harris Elementary at around 9 p.m.

Nelson said he noticed a silver car pull into the parking lot next to the playground and, sometime after the car left, “some guys ran up behind us.” There were between four and six people, demanding that the friends get on the ground, Nelson said.

At first he was tangled up in a swing where he was sitting, but then got face down on the ground, and his cellphone, wallet and car keys were taken, Nelson said.

“Two guys were on me and I saw at least one gun,” he testified.

When Morgan County District Attorney Scott Anderson asked if he feared for his life, Nelson said yes.

Jones’ car keys were left behind in some wood chips and, after the individuals left, the three friends headed to Jones’ home, where his mother, Missy Hall, called Decatur police and the other parents.

On cross examination by defense attorney Brent Burney, Nelson said he was uncertain how many people robbed them.

“I can’t say exactly, it happened so fast,” he said. “I saw one on Dylan and one on Phillip.”

The assailants’ faces were covered with bandannas, he said, and he was unable to identify them.

Because he was tangled in the swing, he couldn’t immediately respond to their demands to get on the ground, so he slid out of the swing, Nelson said.

None of the assailants struck him or discharged a gun, he said, when questioned by Burney.

Two other defendants in the case, Cortez Mitchell and Amani Goodwin, are in prison serving life sentences with the possibility of parole on various counts, including murder. Cedric Cowan’s brother, Joseph Cowan, 25, in September pleaded guilty to multiple counts of capital murder and robbery, and one count of shooting into an occupied dwelling. He was sentenced to life without parole on the murder counts and 115 years on the other counts.

Garland, 22, testified that a gray-colored Nissan pulled into the parking lot next to the playground and about 10 to 15 minutes after it left, four people ran up to them. He said he had been facing the street, texting his mother to let her know where they were.

The assailants’ faces were covered with white bandannas, Garland said. He testified that he saw two people on Nelson and one on Jones, with one gun being held at Nelson, one at Jones and one “in my face.”

He ended up handing over his cellphone and keys, and the assailants ran away toward the field at the back of the school.

When questioned by Carl Cole, another lawyer representing Cedric Cowan, Garland said the gun pointed at him was a small compact pistol. On further questioning, he said he couldn’t identify the individuals, and no one punched him or discharged a firearm.

Jones testified there were about five men who approached the friends, and they were all African Americans with white cloths on their faces.

Three of them were armed, to his knowledge, he said.

Jones said he tried to run away, but froze when he heard, “I’ll shoot, I’ll shoot.”

After “they had me get on the ground,” the assailants took his necklace, watch and cellphone, he said.

On cross examination, Burney had Jones read from a transcript in Cortez Mitchell’s trial, in which Jones testified that he stopped running away because his friend and cousin were pinned to the ground.

When Anderson asked Jones if someone threatened to shoot him, Jones said, “Yes sir.”

Jones said he replaced his cellphone the next day, and the new phone had the same number and account number. When he downloaded data to his new phone, Jones discovered a photograph he didn’t take of someone he didn’t know.

Decatur police Sgt. Mike Burleson, who was the on-call detective the weekend after the school playground robberies, told jurors he received an email from Missy Hall with the photo attached of the unidentified person. After circulating the photo to all officers, they determined the photo was taken at the Decatur High cafeteria, and the person in the photograph was identified as a student there.

Jurors were shown a cellphone video taken by a police officer from the school’s DVR footage, showing Mitchell taking a photograph of the other student.

Cole objected to showing the video to jurors because "it's not the original" and had been edited down.

Burleson testified that after the playground robberies on Wednesday night, followed by the two homicides and other reports of robberies over the next few days, police realized that the crimes were related.

By the time Cortez Mitchell was interviewed and arrested three days after the robberies, Burleson said, police had three additional suspects — the Cowans and Amani Goodwin.

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marian.accardi@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2438. Twitter @DD_MAccardi.

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