Jurors on Tuesday convicted a teenager of first-degree manslaughter for participating in the fatal stabbing of another teen last summer in North Buffalo.
Seventeen-year-old Ezeiekile Nafi faces up to 25 years in prison when sentenced May 1.
The July 5 stabbing of 16-year-old Darren Brown was one of the most grisly killings in Buffalo’s recent history. His throat was slashed and his body stabbed 54 times before one of his attackers set his corpse on fire on an old railroad right of way near Colvin Avenue.
The jury did not convict Nafi of second-degree murder, as prosecutors asked, nor find him guilty of the lesser second-degree manslaughter count, as his defense lawyer requested.
“The proof in this case warranted manslaughter two, but I respect the jury’s decision immensely,” said Emily Trott, Nafi’s defense lawyer.
Throughout the weeklong trial, Trott minimized Nafi’s role in the killing and focused on two others who she and prosecutors said also were at the stabbing scene.
Jurors heard Nafi’s statement to a homicide detective that he stabbed Brown five times in an attack in which he said the two others inflicted more stab wounds than he did with a small knife.
Trott had told jurors that Nafi was present when Brown was stabbed and that he did what he had to do to save his own life.
“I’m not arguing my client bears no criminal responsibility at all,” Trott told jurors during her closing argument. “My client was extremely reckless.”
But she pointed to the two others involved in the killing: Demetrius Huff, 18, who previously pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter in Brown’s death but then abruptly refused to cooperate in Nafi’s prosecution; and Antoine Sanders, 20, also known as “Deuce,” who prosecutors say participated in the attack although he has not been charged.
Trott called Sanders “the mastermind behind this entire thing.”
The stabbing is still under investigation, and Sanders remains a potential suspect, police say.
Both Huff and Sanders took the witness stand during the trial before State Supreme Court Justice Russell P. Buscaglia and cited their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Jurors saw Huff take the stand but not Sanders.
Homicide prosecutor Colleen Curtin Gable scoffed at defense efforts to convince jurors that Nafi inflicted only five nonlethal wounds.
No evidence proves that five of the less-serious wounds are the ones Nafi inflicted, Curtin Gable told jurors.
“Was it really only five times as he claims?” Curtin Gable asked jurors. “Who knows? That really doesn’t matter. He was an active, willing participant, intentionally aiding the others in killing Darren Brown, and for that, he must be held accountable.”
Even if Nafi stabbed Brown just five times, the wounds he inflicted came after a serious beating, blunt-force trauma, a slit throat and other stab wounds, she said.
“That’s not just intent to kill, that’s overkill,” Curtin Gable said.
She asked jurors not to be distracted by what happened – or did not happen – to the others involved in the attack.
“This is the only case you’re here to decide – not the State of New York against Antoine Sanders, not the State of New York against Demetrius Huff,” she told jurors. “That is for a different day and a different jury. Your focus must be on this defendant and the evidence against him.”
The night before he died, Brown had talked to Huff, who mistakenly believed Brown belonged to the same gang as he did – and the two smoked marijuana together on Hertel Avenue, according to prosecutors.
When Sanders, a fellow gang member of Huff’s, learned of the friendly encounter, he reacted furiously, according to Erie County Assistant District Attorney Michael P. Felicetta, who, with Curtin Gable, prosecuted Nafi.
“Why did you bring him around here? If that kid comes back here tonight, we’re killing him, and you’re helping,” Sanders told Huff, according to Felicetta.
However, statements from others questioned by the police cited different reasons for the attack: retribution for a stolen video game player and even a gang initiation.
Huff later returned with gasoline to burn Brown’s body, according to the prosecution, because Nafi had spit on Brown during the attack, and Huff wanted to ensure none of Nafi’s DNA remained on the body.
Huff was allowed to plead guilty in early March to a lesser charge for his role in Brown’s killing. One condition of the plea was that he testify against Nafi, who has been his friend since childhood.
But when Huff took the stand, he refused to tell jurors what happened last July.
“As was stated in open court and upon the record, Mr. Huff pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the first degree in exchange for his cooperation and truthful testimony,” District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III said. “He did not live up to his end of the bargain. Accordingly, the [District Attorney’s Office] will move to revoke his plea of guilty to man one and, if that motion is granted, will proceed to try Mr. Huff for murder in the second degree.”