By Philip Sean Curran
FREEHOLD – Lawyers for three men on trial for allegedly killing Jonelle Melton, a Red Bank Middle School teacher, used their closing arguments March 5 to question the credibility of key witnesses and suggest others had a motive for the 2009 slaying.
Ebenezer Byrd, Gregory A. Jean-Baptiste and Jerry J. Spraulding, facing up to life in prison if convicted, have been on trial for two months in a case the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office has said was about a “horrible mistake.” The 12-member jury was expected to begin deliberating March 7.
On Sept. 14, 2009, the three men allegedly went to burglarize a Neptune City apartment, located in the Brighton Arms complex on West Sylvania Avenue. Their target, the state says, was a drug dealer known to keep $16,000 in his freezer.
“This was not a random burglary,” Matthew Bogner, assistant Monmouth County prosecutor, told the jury in his closing argument.
As it turned out, they went to the wrong apartment. Melton, 33, was asleep in her bedroom when the crime occurred, authorities have said. She was brutally assaulted; her jaw was broken in two places and she was stabbed and shot twice, including in the back of the head. Her body was found by her husband Michael Melton, a fellow teacher who came to perform a welfare check when Jonelle did not show up to work.
While law enforcement ruled the husband out as a suspect, Paul Zager, the attorney defending Byrd, told the jury that Michael had “plenty of motive.”
He said the husband was “jealous” of his soon-to-be ex-wife’s lifestyle, and noted that he got the benefits of her life insurance policy. He also questioned why law enforcement did not search his apartment in Eatontown.
He also raised suspicions about the jealous boyfriend of one of Jonelle Melton’s friends, Jason Davis.
But Bogner said Michael Melton is “innocent,” was no “jealous husband” and was not after his wife’s life insurance money. He also said Davis “has absolutely nothing to do with this case.”
In recreating the last moments of Jonelle’s life, Bogner said she was ripped out of her bed and dragged to the floor. Michael, who was in court Wednesday, left the courtroom for a time when the images of his late wife were shown on a TV screen to the jury. Later, he accepted a package of tissues offered by someone in the courtroom.
“She was defenseless,” Bogner told the jury. “They killed the only eyewitness to what happened in that apartment.”
On March 5, lawyers for all three defendants hammered away at Elizabeth Pinto, a key witness for the prosecution, who was Byrd’s girlfriend and drove the men that night. She accepted a plea deal calling for her to get probation and testified at the trial about driving the men, all dressed in black that night, to the apartment complex.
Mark A. Bailey, the attorney for Jean-Baptiste, said she is an admitted drug user who used to drive drug dealers around for money. He said she had pending criminal charges. Court records show she was indicted Jan. 31 by a Middlesex County grand jury on drug and identify theft charges, with the indictment being handed up around the same time she was taking the witness stand in Freehold.
“This is the character of your witnesses,” Bailey told the jury of eight men and four women.
Zager said Pinto is not a citizen of the United States and could be deported. He told the jury it was not a “stretch” to think the Prosecutor’s Office would contact immigration authorities to help her out.
But Bogner said Pinto is not a drug addict.
In his remarks to the jury, Bogner pointed to a piece of evidence: A lighter found at the apartment had Jean-Baptiste’s DNA on it. He also rejected a defense argument that the crime scene had been staged and defended the work of the lead detective Scott Samis of the Prosecutor’s Office. He said Samis, who was in the courtroom this week and testified at trial, did not coach or feed information to Pinto, who finally came clean with everything she knew in December 2015.
Jean-Baptiste, 30, of Asbury Park, Byrd, 39, of Neptune City, and Spraulding, 41, of Keansburg, were indicted in 2016 on murder and related offenses in Jonelle’s death. All three have criminal records, according to court records.
On March 5, the courtroom of Superior Court Judge Joseph W. Oxley was packed with Jonelle’s family members, law enforcement and others. In the afternoon, Monmouth County Prosecutor Christopher J. Gramiccioni sat on a front row bench to watch the proceeding and flashed a thumbs-up in a sign of encouragement to Bogner before court resumed after the lunch break.
There was heavy security presence inside and outside the courtroom, as visitors had to sign in and show identification to be admitted and pass through a metal detector stationed at the entrance. Six Monmouth County Sheriff’s Officers were stationed inside and a seventh was outside the entrance.
Bogner told the jury that Jonelle Melton had “lived a simple, normal life.”
“She had no enemies at work,” he said. “She had no enemies in the neighborhood.”
This article was first published in the March 7-March 13, 2019 print edition of The Two River Times.
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