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‘I was just a witness:’ College student recounts arrest before Tyshawn Lee murder trial

Earl Moore was jailed after prosecutors said he ducked a subpoena. But Moore said he was always willing to testify. “I was never a person that would say f—k the system, follow the code [of silence]. But I see why people say that,” he said.

A poster at a memorial for Tyshawn Lee posted near where he was killed in 2015. Two men charged with the 9-year-old’s murder are on trial.
A poster at a memorial for Tyshawn Lee posted near where he was killed in 2015. Two men charged with the 9-year-old’s murder are on trial.
Brian Jackson/For the Chicago Sun-Times

Within hours of taking the witness stand to testify against two men charged with the execution-style murder of 9-year-old Tyshawn Lee, Earl Moore hopped on a bus out of Chicago.

The 19-year-old wasn’t trying to skip town before friends of the alleged gang members on trial could seek revenge. He wanted to get back to the leafy, green campus of his Arkansas college and put a good 600 miles between himself and the worst experience of his life.

Three weeks before the trial started, Moore was arrested in front of his dorm, jailed for more than a week in Arkansas, then flown to Chicago and put behind bars again at Kendall County Jail. It was his first arrest.

“They took me on the plane in handcuffs, and all the people were looking at me like I must be the most dangerous criminal in the world,” Moore recalled in a recent phone interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “I know I might have [dreadlocks] and a tattoo and look kind of tough, but I’m really a nice guy.

“I tried to do anything in my power to stay out of trouble my whole life, and I end up going to jail for something that wasn’t even my case. I was just a witness.”

Cook County prosecutors say witnesses in gang-related cases are often hard to find as trials approach because they worry about intimidation or just get cold feet.

Dwright Boone-Doty is alleged to have targeted Tyshawn because the fourth-grader’s father was a member of a rival gang behind a shooting that wounded Boone-Doty’s co-defendant’s Corey Morgan’s mother and left Morgan’s brother dead.

Dwright Boone-Doty appears during opening statements in his trial for the murder of 9-year-old Tyshawn Lee at the Leighton Criminal Court building in Chicago on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019.
Dwright Boone-Doty appears during opening statements in his trial for the murder of 9-year-old Tyshawn Lee at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse.
E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/Pool

Prosecutors said it is a rare step and last resort, but witnesses who don’t show up when subpoenaed can be jailed. Moore — who spent two weeks in jail — was one of four witnesses in Boone-Doty and Morgan’s case who were locked up before the trial. All were high school students who had been at Auburn Gresham’s Dawes Park near where Tyshawn was killed in 2015.

After Moore was extradited from Arkansas, Assistant State’s Attorney Thomas Darman told Judge Thaddeus Wilson he tried to contact Moore for weeks and asked the judge to force Moore to honor a subpoena for a hearing two weeks ahead of jury selection. Moore said he told Darman and an investigator he had to be on campus that day to register for classes.

“Had (Moore) contacted me, had he said ... ‘I had to go back to school, I had to register,’ there could have been things that could be done,” Darman said then. “He well knew the ramifications and the importance of this matter. Quite frankly, I don’t know what else was to be done at that point in time.”

Moore’s court-appointed attorney, April Preyar challenged the validity of the subpoenas, which summoned Moore for dates when there were no hearings scheduled.

Corey Morgan, on trial for the murder of Tyshawn Lee, sits beside his lawyers Tuesday during opening statements at the Leighton Criminal Court Building.
Corey Morgan, on trial for the murder of Tyshawn Lee, sits beside his lawyers Tuesday during opening statements at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse.
E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/Pool

Wilson ruled the subpoenas as legitimate and said it’s his policy to allow prosecutors to summon witnesses on non-court dates before trial in “complex” cases.

Preyar said that practice illustrates an improper use of subpoena power and can derail the lives of people who have done nothing other than witness a crime.

“If you want him to show up just for an interview, you can send him a letter, you can go to his house, you can try to find him at work,” Preyar said. “They know where he lives. They know where he goes to school. He had come back from school to talk to them before.”

Prosecutors had designated Moore and the three others as “material witnesses.” The others were jailed, too. And all but one man — who at a previous court hearing in the case threw his subpoena on the courtroom floor and told Wilson he wouldn’t testify — were released on electronic monitoring after signing a written pledge to return for the trial. One of those witnesses was never called to the stand after prosecutors decided the testimony wasn’t needed.

During the trial, which continues Monday, Moore was on the witness stand for 45 minutes, testifying he had been at the park and left before the deadly shooting. Moore said he had seen getaway driver Kevin Edwards near the basketball court. Edwards pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 25 years in prison four days after Moore was arrested in Arkansas. He didn’t see Boone-Doty or Morgan.

Kevin Edwards
Kevin Edwards pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 25 years in prison for the murder of 9-year-old Tyshawn Lee.
Sun-Times Media

Moore had been pulled out of class and questioned by detectives days after Tyshawn was killed. Moore said he was always willing testify. No longer living in his old South Side neighborhood and thinking his testimony wasn’t particularly important, Moore didn’t fear retaliation.

But after what he’s been through, he wouldn’t encourage witnesses to come forward.

“I was never a person that would say f—k the system, follow the code [of silence]. But I see why people say that,” Moore said. “I’m the kind of person has to experience things for themselves, and by me having this experience, I see how it is.”