Crime

Daily recaps from the murder trial concerning the death of a Syracuse University student

Michael Burke | Senior Staff Writer

The criminal courthouse in downtown Syracuse is the site of the murder trial of the two men accused of killing a Syracuse University student.

UPDATED: Aug. 16, 2017 at 5:22 p.m.

Almost a year after the death of Syracuse University student Xiaopeng “Pippen” Yuan, the two men accused of killing him are now on trial for murder.

Cameron Isaac, 24, and Ninimbe Mitchell, 20, face first- and second-degree murder charges, respectively, in connection to the death of the student. Yuan was an SU student from China at the time he was found dead last September.

Authorities allege that Isaac robbed and killed Yuan during a drug deal, and that Mitchell was Isaac’s getaway driver, acting as an accomplice. Judge John Brunetti is overseeing the trial. Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick is trying the case, while Syracuse-based defense attorneys Paul Carey and William Sullivan are representing Mitchell and Isaac, respectively.

Below are the latest updates from the trial, featuring daily recaps:

Day 8, Aug. 16: Mitchell found not guilty of murder, guilty of robbery

After deliberating most of the day Wednesday, the jury found Mitchell not guilty of second-degree murder but guilty of first-degree robbery. First-degree robbery is punishable in New York state by between five and 25 years in prison.

Wednesday’s verdicts marked the end of the trial. Mitchell and Isaac will each be sentenced for their convictions on Sept. 6.

Day 7, Aug. 15: Isaac found guilty; deliberations continue for Mitchell

The jury on Tuesday found Isaac guilty of his first-degree murder charge. Jurors arrived at the verdict after deliberating for about five hours.

Isaac bowed his head as the jury announced his guilty verdict and nodded to family members as he exited the courtroom minutes later.

Jurors did not reach a verdict for Mitchell on Tuesday. Brunetti instructed them to continue deliberations pertaining to Mitchell’s charge on Wednesday morning.

Day 6, Aug. 14: Prosecution, defense make closing statements

The defense attorneys for both Isaac and Mitchell as well as the prosecution made closing statements Monday after the defense rested its case in the morning.

Jurors will begin deliberations Tuesday morning, after Brunetti gives them a final set of instructions.

In his closing statement, Fitzpatrick asked jurors to “use your common sense” when they begin deliberating. He argued that the case is “exactly what it appears to be” — a robbery-turned-murder that Isaac and Mitchell jointly coordinated, according to the prosecution.

Day 5, Aug. 11: Expert analyzes bullets recovered from Isaac’s apartment, Yuan’s body

An expert testified that the bullet that killed Yuan was “unusually” similar to bullets recovered from Isaac’s apartment. Matthew Kurimsky, a firearms examiner for Onondaga County who examined evidence following Yuan’s death, said the bullet recovered from Yuan’s body was particularly unusual because of its “semi-jacketed” design.

He added that he had never seen that type of a bullet. He was then “struck,” he testified, when he realized that the bullets from Isaac’s apartment were “very similar.”

Also called to the stand Friday was Laura Collins, the case’s lead detective. Sullivan pressed her on text messages Yuan sent to people other than Isaac regarding potential drug deals. Sullivan has argued that Yuan was a successful, dangerous drug dealer who likely developed business rivals and enemies, possibly giving them a motive to kill him.

Following the testimonies of Collins and Kurimsky, the prosecution rested its case.

Sullivan on Friday called two witnesses to the stand: Jeffrey Demperio and John Johnson. Both Demperio and Johnson work at the Springfield Garden Apartments. Demperio testified that he thought he had seen Yuan at the complex three times prior to Sept. 30, and Johnson testified that he saw Yuan’s black Chevrolet Camaro at the complex twice before Sept. 30.

Day 4, Aug. 10: Lead detective analyzes text sent by Isaac

The lead detective in the case said Thursday that Isaac told a friend via text message he planned to rob Yuan of marijuana. The prosecution showed texts in which Yuan and Isaac discussed buying two pounds of marijuana. In a separate text to a friend that day, Isaac said he was going to “make a play,” which Laura Collins said is informal terminology for a robbery.

Collins, a detective with the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office, was the lead detective on the case. Isaac’s attorney, William Sullivan, argued that to “make a play” can simply mean to make a standard drug deal.

The prosecution also played video footage on Thursday that showed a black BMW driving on streets near the crime scene shortly before and after the crime occurred. Mitchell is alleged to have been driving the vehicle.

The other major piece of evidence presented Thursday was a phone call that Isaac made from prison to his girlfriend, days after his arrest. While discussing an interview that his girlfriend had with authorities, Isaac told her that he hoped she “ain’t say nothing stupid.” She responded that the authorities “knew I knew some stuff.”

Day 3, Aug. 9: Cellphone-mapping expert, former student and several deputies testify

Rafal Dobrowolski, an expert in cellphone mapping and analysis, testified Wednesday that his analysis of the phones belonging to Isaac and Mitchell revealed that they were in the approximate location where Yuan was killed at the time of his death. In the hour leading up to Yuan’s death, the phones were tracked moving from North Syracuse, where Isaac lived at the time, to an area including the Springfield Garden Apartments in DeWitt.

Authorities say Yuan died around 12:50 p.m. on Sept. 30. At 12:54 p.m., the phones of Isaac and Mitchell were located moving away from Dewitt, according to Dobrowolski’s analysis.

Deputies from the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office who searched the respective residences of Isaac, Mitchell and Yuan also testified Wednesday. Those testimonies revealed that gun ammunition was found in the apartments of both Isaac and Mitchell and that large quantities of marijuana were found in Yuan’s apartment.

It was also revealed Wednesday that, on the morning of the day he died, Yuan purchased four pounds of marijuana from a person who was an SU student at the time.

Day 2, Aug. 8: Prosecution, defense give opening statements

The prosecution and the defense previewed the arguments they will make and the evidence they will present during the trial as they made their opening statements, which followed the conclusion of jury selection.

The prosecution, led by Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick, plans to use cell phone records and other evidence to prove that Isaac and Mitchell spent weeks coordinating a plan to rob Yuan. Yuan and Isaac allegedly communicated for weeks leading up to Yuan’s death. Yuan believed they were working out a legitimate drug deal, but Isaac was always planning to rob him, prosecutors allege. Mitchell was allegedly Isaac’s accomplice and aware of the plans.

Isaac’s defense attorney William Sullivan, plans to argue that Isaac wasn’t involved in Yuan’s murder. Sullivan on Tuesday described Yuan as a “thriving” marijuana dealer who had several business rivals that may have had motives to kill him. Mitchell’s attorney, Paul Carey, will argue that Mitchell was unaware of Isaac’s plans to rob Yuan when he drove him to the apartment complex and thought it was simply a drug deal.

The prosecution began presenting its evidence Tuesday and called one witness to the stand: Helen Salling, a patrol deputy for the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office who received the 911 call reporting that Yuan had been shot.

Day 1, Aug. 7: Eight jurors selected

Two men and six women were sworn in as jurors as the trial began at the criminal courthouse in downtown Syracuse on Monday.

Dozens of potential jurors filed into the courtroom shortly after 11 a.m., but most were dismissed. Brunetti, Fitzpatrick and the defense attorneys then questioned and addressed about 25 remaining potential jurors in front of the courtroom, requesting that they act fair and impartial if selected.

The eight selected jurors were sworn in after the judge and attorneys on each side spent time deliberating. The remaining four jurors and between two and four alternates will be picked when jury selection resumes at 10:15 a.m. on Tuesday.

Additionally, Sullivan twice on Monday asked Brunetti to reconsider a previously denied motion for severance, which would allow Isaac and Mitchell to be tried separately. Sullivan argued Monday that Mitchell’s defense will essentially incriminate Isaac, something he said would eliminate the possibility of Isaac getting a fair trial. Carey will argue that Mitchell was unaware of Isaac’s plan to rob and kill Yuan when he agreed to drive him to and from the Springfield Garden Apartments in DeWitt, where Yuan was found dead.

Brunetti didn’t immediately respond to Sullivan’s request, saying he wants to “see how the events unfold” during the trial.

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