There were four people in the 2014 Ford Focus that drove to 7 Westford Lane at dusk on July 12, 2019 for a pot deal that resulted in the shooting death of 17-year-old Elijah Rizvan: Daryin Newsome, 19, at the wheel of the car he owned, brothers Nicholas and Nathaniel Varol, 19 and 17 at the time, and Benjamin Allen, 16. Today, Newsom and the Varol brothers testified in the third day of Allen’s trial on a first-degree murder charge.
The six hours of testimony were like an American version of “Rashomon,” the 1950 Japanese movie at times invoked in law schools as an example of witnesses’ unreliability, where four people tell very different, self-serving and conflicting stories about a man’s murder. The difference in this case is that for all the mounds of fictions the witnesses have constructed so far, there’s nothing fictitious about Rizvan’s death or the possible fate of Allen, now 18, who faces life in prison without parole if found guilty.
The three young men’s testimonies before a six-person jury and Circuit Judge Terence Perkins followed the same pattern. They were state witnesses, the heart of the prosecution’s attempt to prove Allen guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But the witnesses weakened by lies even the prosecution acknowledged up front, and further weakened by the sort of sympathy none of them were able to establish during their long blocks of time on the stand. It doesn’t help that they wore masks, hiding facial expressions that can help build a rapport with the jury. But their demeanors didn’t help, either.
Nicholas’s intelligence towered over the other two though it was put in the service of a torrent of lies. And his poise was as remarkable as it seemed detached from the tragedy at the center of the case–as detached as the way he startled one of the two defense attorneys when he told him he went to sleep soon after the murder, without a problem. His younger brother Nate was more hunched over in speech and body language, laconic, less patient with the defense’s concentric circling around his contradictions but still as immovable as his brother when it came to his choice of final answers no matter what transcripts or video clips showed. Newsome, who testified at the end of the day, was the fuzziest of the three throughout. A previous motion by the prosecution described him as having “withheld information throughout the investigation and he provided inconsistent statements prior to disclosing what happened (which was largely consistent with other witnesses in the case).”
But for all the detours, lies and contradictions, the three men’s fingers eventually converged, through prosecutors’ questions, to point in one direction: away from themselves and toward Allen. (The case is being prosecuted by Assistant State Attorney Jennifer Dunton and Mark Johnson.)
That July 12, a Friday, Newsome, a Navy recruit stationed in Jacksonville, had traveled down to spend the weekend with the Varol brothers, as he frequently did. They’d decided to invite Allen and go out to shoot pool at Cue Note in Palm Coast. That much the three witnesses’ stories agreed on from the start. The stories they then told detectives diverged from reality, but at times in concert. Somehow the three had managed to tell the same lies to the detectives: that they had gone to the pool hall without Allen, or that they’d dropped off Allen in the W Section and weren’t there at the time of the shooting. When detectives showed them evidence tracing their whereabouts, they changed their stories, eventually coming to what they said was the truth.
The Varol brothers testified that Allen wanted pot, even though they acknowledged that he had his own supplier who would drop off pot at his own home. Nathaniel said Allen’s phone “didn’t have service” (a statement contradicted several times by evidence that they’d reached Allen somehow to invite him out and communicated with him by phone and other means after the shooting. Detectives never acquired his phone or its data). Since Allen’s phone wasn’t working, Nathaniel said he contacted the middle man to set up the drug deal in the W Section, where they headed after an hour at the pool hall.
They all testified that Allen and Nathaniel got out of the car to meet Rizvan. But even at the end of the day’s testimony, there were different stories about what happened next: Nathaniel said he never touched Rizvan, only came near him. Newsome said Nathaniel was first to shake hands with Rizvan, followed by Allen. Nathaniel said he’d gone to the car’s trunk to get a bottle of water for Newsome before the shooting, lifting the trunk lid and blocking the view of what was happening behind the driver and the passenger (Newsome and Nicholas, as Nicholas had also claimed). Newsome, echoing the testimony of Rizvan’s girlfriend–who was hiding during the incident–said the trunk lid never went up.
But none of the three saw a gun come out, none of the three saw Allen actually shoot Rizvan, not even Nathaniel. Only Nathaniel said he saw the gun later, in the car as it sped off. He said Allen “put it in the back of the driver’s seat,” then wrapped it up in “his hoodie or his shirt and put it in his bag.” None of the three know what happened to the gun.
For Nicholas, it took a second interview with detectives at the county courthouse to get to his version of the truth, after offering up four different scenarios about what had happened that evening. Why the truth, Dunton asked him? “I just kind of sat there and thought to myself about the whole situation, and I realized that at that point, the best thing to do was just be honest and tell the truth. At the same time, as a person, you know, felt for him, the kid himself, the victim, I realized it wasn’t fair to him. I decided that honesty was the best policy.” Several times he referred to Rizvan as “the kid,” rather than by his name.
“Isn’t it true that you continued your lie at that time for 33 minutes?” Gary Baker, one of Allen’s two defense attorneys, asked him. It was, though he had told detectives that he assured them he was telling the truth 27 times, when he wasn’t.
Gerald Bettman, the lead defense attorney, couldn’t hide his sarcasm about Nicholas when addressing the judge at the end of the day, out of view of the jury (“He goes to Christian school, he would never think about doing anything wrong”). The attorney was arguing for the introduction of what would be “very, very caustic” messages by Nicholas’s own mother about his “mixed behavior.” The judge is to rule in the morning, before the jury walks in, as to whether the messages are admissible evidence.
Though the defense tried, it was never clear why the two Varol brothers went to such lengths to make up stories rather than pin the murder on Allen outright, though both brothers repeatedly said they’d lied because they’d been scared for themselves throughout, and still were.
But it was Newsome who finally gave the prosecution its strongest sequence of the day, if only after taking the unflappable Johnson through a maze of elusions. Newsome had repeatedly attempted not to answer questions he had already answered before, but not in front of a jury. Newsome had spoken by phone (that phone of Allen’s that ostensibly had no service) after dropping him off at his Tidelands apartment and Newsome returned with the Varol brothers to their home on the Intracoastal. Johnson wanted him to tell what Allen told him.
Newsome tried at first to plead the Fifth Amendment when Johnson asked him why he was driving to the W Section. He didn’t want to say, on the record, that he was driving to a drug transaction. Johnson told him there was no pleading the Fifth in circuit court. So he conceded: “to buy weed.” At first he said he wasn’t sure who wanted it. “They both came up to me,” he said of Allen and Nathaniel. He repeated that, briefly frustrating Johnson, who took a different ttrack to end up with the same question again: “So it was Ben that wanted to buy the weed.”
“Yes or no. Very simple answer,” Johnson said.
“Yes,” Newsome said.
Newsome then described the encounter with Rizvan, the chaotic drive away from the scene, dropping off Allen, then speaking to him by phone, when Allen described things not going the way they were supposed to.”They just went south,” Newsome said.
Johnson: “Did he tell you who fired the gun?”
Newsome: “No sir, he did not.”
Johnson: “Did he tell you who did not fire the gun?”
Newsome: “No sir.”
Johnson: “Are you sure about that?”
Newsome: “Yes, sir.”
Johnson: “Are you really, really sure?” That drew an objection from the defense. Perkins sustained. Johnson then reverted to what Corporal Finn had asked him during their interview–what Allen said about it. Allen had told him: “Nate didn’t do it.”
Johnson: “You do recall giving him that answer?”
Newsome: “Yes sir.”
Johnson: “And was that the truth?”
Newsome: “I’m not sure it was the truth, that’s what Nate was telling me, he’s like, ‘I didn’t do anything.'”
Johnson: “The question was, What did Ben, not Nate, say, and your answer was, same thing: Nate didn’t do it. That was your–that’s what you told detective Finn on July the 14th, 2019. Correct?”
Newsome: “Yes sir.”
Johnson: “And that was what Ben told you, that Nate didn’t do it.”
Newsome: “I’m hearing what you’re saying but I honestly don’t remember him saying that conversation.” Johnson brought out the interview transcript. Newsome still said he couldn’t remember. At that point John son wanted to treat him as a hostile witness, even though he was a state’s witness. The judge did not allow it.
Johnson asked Newsome how he felt about Allen. “Like family,” Newsome said.
Johnson: “Do you want to answer the question that I just asked you?”
Newsome: “No sir, I did not want to answer that question.” He said all three men were like family to him.
Johnson: “We get that. But I’m going to ask you again. … Isn’t it true that you told detective Finn that Ben told you that Nate didn’t do it?”
Johnson: “And was that true?”
Johnson had his answer, and had nothing further.
Baker then on cross-examination asked Newsome to recollect the rest of the conversation with the detective. “So Ben never said he did it?” he asked Newsome.
“No,” Newsome said.
“So who did it then?” the defense attorney asked.
“I don’t know who did it. He said he didn’t do it,” Newsome said.
“So Ben told you he didn’t do it, either?”
The day ended not much longer after that.
As he has each day of trial, Allen has sat almost ramrod in his chair, his attention riveted on every witness and never flagging. Some defendants doodle. Some take notes. Some slouch and seem not even interested in speaking with their attorneys. Allen has been engaged throughout, his two attorneys periodically consulting with him, though there’s no question who’s in charge. The attorneys revealed at the end of the day today that they had not yet decided whether he would testify. Defense lawyers generally prefer that their client not testify: it’s too inviting a door to prosecutors.
What is certain is that on Thursday, the state will play the video of a 56-minute interview of Allen by detectives. Whether a defendant takes the stand or not, such interviews often play a pivotal role in criminal trials.