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Cellphone or gun? Man convicted in road rage incident

Written by Aspen Stoddard on August 25, 2014

ST. GEORGE — A Washington County jury found a St. George man guilty of aggravated assault Friday for allegedly pointing a gun at a young family in February in a case of what the prosecution characterized as road rage.

A jury of seven women and one man returned a guilty verdict against 23-year-old Rashad Alton for one third-degree felony count of aggravated assault and a not-guilty verdict for one class A misdemeanor count of brandishing a gun. The case involved an incident that occurred on Interstate 15 in Washington and St. George in February.

On the morning of Feb. 10, Marnie Echols was giving her friend Steven Perez, 23, and his friend, the defendant Alton, a ride to St. George in her silver Honda Civic. While traveling southbound on I-15 in the left lane, just past the Washington Parkway exit, an altercation ensued and escalated. Echols’ passenger, Perrez, was looking down when he felt Echols’ car pass over the rumble strips, Perez said, after a white Honda Accord cut them off.

“I was yelling at the top of my lungs,” Perez said. “We were all just yelling and throwing up our hands.”

It was after the white Honda Accord, driven by Sean Robinson, 21, merged back into the right lane and Echols sped up to pass them that Alton flashed a 9 mm handgun at the passengers in the white Honda Accord, witness Sean Robinson said during testimony. Passengers in Sean Robinson’s car included his then-fiancé Haley Robinson, 20, and their 2-year-old daughter.

Alton then leaned out of the window, turned back and pointed the gun at their car, both Sean Robinson and Haley Robinson said in testimony to the court. The Robinsons described the gun as being all black with a silver ring around the barrel. After seeing the gun pointed at them, Haley Robinson said, she called 911.

Sean and Haley Robinson both said they had not seen the gun since the incident on the freeway.

Echols and Perez both said in testimony that the Robinsons had confused a gun with a cell phone. Echols said that she had never met Alton before the day of the incident in February. She said that neither Perez nor Alton knew she had a gun.

After pulling over Echols in a car lot near 200 West on St. George Boulevard, St. George Police Officer Hector Dominguez said, he approached the vehicle alone, without backup, on the passenger side of the vehicle with his hand on his gun.

“I started asking them where’s the gun?” Dominguez said to the jury. “Alton said, ‘what gun?'”

As Dominguez pulled Alton out of the car, Echols reached over and opened the glove box exposing an unloaded gun with no bullets in the chamber, she then pulled the clip out of the center console, Dominguez said to the jury. He said he grabbed the clip and the gun, which at the time was not locked into the safe position, held the gun to his chest and walked back to his car to make sure the gun was in a safe position.

Prosecuting Attorney Bryan Wheat presented evidence during the trial including a black Jericho 9 mm handgun with a silver ring around the barrel. He said the gun had been retrieved from the glove box of the car just inches in front of where the defendant Alton was sitting, arguing that the gun matched the exact description of the Robinsons’ witness statements.

Echols said she carried the gun, registered to her father, for her own protection in her line of work.

Defense Attorney Edward Flint countered Wheat’s argument pointing out that the gun was found in the unsafe position which would have covered the silver barrel. Flint asked whether Dominguez had tested the gun for fingerprints.

Dominguez said the gun was never tested for fingerprints because he had grabbed the gun with his bare hands and “contaminated it.”

“Why would he need fingerprints?” Wheat asked during his closing statement. “Marnie (Echols) and Steven (Perez) have a lot of reasons to lie. Haley and Sean (Robinson) have no reason to lie.”

Flint questioned Dominguez about the standard procedure for police officers when they are informed that there may be a gun in a vehicle; he asked if typical protocol in a situation involving a gun would call for a “felony stop,” requiring the officer to wait for backup to arrive before approaching the vehicle. Dominguez said that officers are allowed case management and certain situations demand altered procedures.

“Sometimes in the moment you got to do what you got to do,” Dominguez said.

When Flint questioned Sean Robinson whether Alton had a hat on and what kind of hat he was wearing, Sean Robinson said he couldn’t remember; then he got flustered and said, “the hat’s not the problem.”

Flint, though, said in his closing statement that, in the Robinsons’ witness statements, Alton is described as a black man wearing a black hat. He asked the jury how it could happen realistically that Alton could lean out of the window and not have his hat fly off while zooming down the freeway at 80 miles per hour?

After over an hour of deliberation, the jury returned its verdicts, finding Alton guilty of aggravated assault, but not guilty of brandishing a gun. The Honorable G. Michael Westfall ordered immediate probation and set Alton’s sentencing for Oct. 1.

Flint said that sometimes a jury will “split the baby,” dropping the lesser charge – in this case, the misdemeanor charge of brandishing a weapon.

“It was a tough case. People saw a black man with a gun,” Flint said. “Everyone in Utah has a gun, but you know when someone sees a black man with a gun … it’s different. I knew as soon as the jury walked in that it was a guilty verdict because suddenly none of the jurors would make eye contact.”

“They are racist,” Alton said after the trial, referring to some of the jury members, “I already knew they were going to convict me.”

“There wasn’t even circumstantial evidence. This was a ‘he said, she said’ case, and now Alton’s life is forever changed,” Private Investigator Christian Warmsley said, who also interviewed some of the witnesses prior to this trial.

“We have a problem with our judicial system because of the stereotypes bound to white and black,” Warmsley said. “It doesn’t matter if you are black, green, white, purple or blue, to the law, you are a liar. You have to prove yourself innocent.”

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