PETERSBURG — The two men whose shooting at a downtown apartment complex last July resulted in the death of a bystander were convicted on Friday afternoon of killing her.
A Circuit Court jury deliberated for just over four hours before finding Jesiah Flowers guilty of second-degree murder and Davin Mitchell guilty of intentional homicide. During their July 2, 2022 shootout inside ArtistSpace Lofts, 19-year-old Toni “Stinka” Knight was killed and her 11-year-old cousin injured as they walked into the crossfire inside the building lobby.
Flowers faces a maximum sentence of 40 years in prison for murder and Mitchell 10 years for manslaughter when they are sentenced on August 17.
Diane Branzelle had waited 342 days and four hours to know the fate of the two suspects accused of having killed her daughter. After the court adjourned, her family members and supporters hugged and applauded her outside the Petersburg courthouse.
“We got justice for Stinka,” Branzelle said, a tone of relief in her voice.
As she left the courtroom, Branzelle also received a hug from Mitchell’s mother. Shortly before the reading of the verdict, the two women discussed in the hall where the mother of the suspect wanted to apologize to the mother of the victim.
Flowers’ mother and two sisters fled the courtroom in tears after Circuit Court Judge Dennis Martin remanded Flowers into custody. He had been released on bail pending trial and his lawyer, James Bullard, had asked Flowers to stay out until sentencing.
Mitchell, on the other hand, remained in custody. Martin also refused attorney Stephen Sommers’ request to release Mitchell on bail until sentencing.
The two defendants were also found guilty of weapons and bodily harm resulting from the incident and will be sentenced to prison for these, including those of Knight’s 11-year-old cousin, who was shot in the the head by shrapnel.
Each man had faced a total of 14 charges. Flowers was convicted for 11 of them and Mitchell for five.
It took 50 minutes for the judge to read the 85-page instructions to the jury before giving them the brief, but only a few minutes for the clerk to read the verdicts.
Before the jury arrived, Martin and a sheriff’s deputy warned onlookers in the courtroom of emotional outbursts as the decisions were read. “I don’t care what you think of the verdict or what it should have been,” the judge said. He warned that 15 Petersburg police officers and Virginia State Police troopers were stationed outside to keep the peace, “and I don’t expect any trouble.”
The room grew quiet and tense as the verdicts were read. None of the defendants showed any reaction upon hearing the decisions.
Both defense attorneys lobbied for the jury to be allowed to consider self-defense in the charges, which both defendants say sparked the altercation. Flowers and Mitchell attended Hopewell High School together and were involved in an altercation three years ago, and the prosecution claimed it was that beef that led to the shooting.
“It all started with a fight in Hopewell and ended with a shooting in Petersburg,” lead prosecutor Thomas Chaffe said in closing arguments.
Lawyers for the defendants tried to blow up the case from the prosecution… and from each other.
Bullard blamed Mitchell squarely, saying he was the one who caused the shooting because he threatened Flowers and his family. Whie Flowers admitted to firing first, it was Mitchell who fired the most shots, several of them blindly as he fled the scene.
“He changed the world that day, and we’re all the worst for it,” Bullard said. He interjected something his grandmother used to tell him as a child about staying away from troublesome people – they were “a lie and the truth is not in them”.
“If Josephine Bailey was still alive, she would look straight [Mitchell] and say, ‘That boy is a lie and the truth is not far from him,’ Bullard said.
Regarding Flowers’ testimony on Thursday, Bullard said he was telling the truth, but noted how Chaffe and Sommers tried to intimidate him on the stand.
“They’re taking a victory lap for tripping a child,” the attorney said.
Sommers told the jury that if Flowers hadn’t fired first, Mitchell wouldn’t have drawn his gun.
“Who triggered this death streak? One person: Jesiah Flowers,” Sommers said. “He lit the fuse that created this explosion in everyone’s world.”
According to building surveillance video, Mitchell and Flowers passed each other in a stairwell the day of the incident when something triggered the shooting. Mitchell was alone while Flowers were accompanied by his two sisters and 16-year-old Keshawn Hicks, a third suspect who has entered into a plea deal with prosecutors and will be sentenced in August.
In the video, Knight’s 11-year-old cousin was already in the hall when the shooting began, and is seen running for cover. Knight was shot outside the door and collapsed face down on the sidewalk as his other cousin, who was uninjured, ran.
Each defendant claimed the other made threats in that stairwell, but the video had no audio track. Flowers said Mitchell threatened to kill him while Mitchell said someone in Flowers’ group called him a “motherf****r”.
Sommers questioned why people who were with Flowers that day at ArtistSpace Lofts weren’t called to corroborate Flowers’ claim that Mitchell provoked him. He called it “the elephant in the room” on the case.
Lead prosecutor Thomas Chaffe admitted during closing arguments that Mitchell’s gun fired the shot that ultimately killed Knight.
“We know it was Devin Mitchell’s bullet that killed Toni Knight. It was right in front of the glass,” Chaffe said. “But she, the ball, could very well have belonged to Jesiah Flowers.”
The Petersburg Commonwealth attorney filed second-degree murder charges against both men and 16-year-old Keshawn Hicks, a third suspect who has entered a plea deal in the case. Chaffe said it was done because it was “the mutual fight” between them that ultimately cost Knight his life.
Chaffe tore up the testimonies of the two defendants the day before.
“[Mitchell] spoken like a lawyer. There was nothing authentic about his testimony,” Chaffe told jurors. “He looked like a 13 Bravo rookie using legal terms to cover up that he had made up his testimony. Flowers’ advice was to guide him the whole time, and he contradicted himself.
More: Toni Knight murder case goes to Petersburg jury on Friday; defendants speak on Thursday
Bill Atkinson (he/him/her) is an award-winning journalist covering breaking news, government and politics. Join it at [email protected] or on Twitter at @BAtkinson_PI.
This article originally appeared on The Progress-Index: Men convicted July 2022 of woman’s death in Petersburg apartments