A Jefferson Parish jury took four hours Thursday afternoon to find Tavis Joseph guilty of taking part in the fatal 2013 shooting of two Southern University students in Harvey.
Joseph, who will be sentenced Aug. 17, was convicted on two charges of second-degree murder. Each carries a mandatory sentence of life in jail without the possibility of parole, probation or suspended sentence.
Judge Cornelius Regan, of 24th Judicial District Court, cleared the courtroom after the 10-2 verdict was read to allow Joseph, 22, a few moments to speak with his father, who had testified earlier in the day on his behalf.
Moments later, members of the families of the dead men, Nikiayh Westerfield and Dave Harrison, called the verdict just but the circumstances a tragedy.
“It’s a sad day for everybody involved,” said Natara Westerfield, who lost both of her nephews the night of Aug. 13, 2013. “It’s not like we’re happy, because another family is hurting now.”
Two of the other men accused of being involved in the shooting that night were convicted earlier.
Irvin Harris, of Harvey, was sentenced in January to life in prison for second-degree murder, while Jeremy Coleman, of Waggaman, pleaded guilty last year to manslaughter in exchange for his testimony against the other participants.
Investigators testified during the four-day trial that the scene in the 4000 block of Paige Janette Drive had all the hallmarks of a drug deal gone bad, and that it appeared the group of four men that included Joseph had decided to rob Westerfield and Harrison, who had come down from Baton Rouge to sell them some marijuana.
Cellphone records showed a string of texts between Westerfield and Coleman leading up to the meeting, which took place a few minutes before midnight. Ballistics and crime-scene experts testified that four shooters fired four weapons moments after Coleman got into the passenger seat of the vehicle.
Coleman was shot and paralyzed in the gunfire, though it’s not clear who shot him. A revolver with two spent casings still in the cylinder was found under the front seat in front of Harrison’s body, which was slumped in the back seat.
Westerfield died with a clear plastic bag of marijuana in his left hand and a rosary near his right hand; a stolen gun that had appeared in photos recovered from Harris’ cellphone was resting on the center console.
Investigators said Harris, Coleman, Joseph and a fourth person not yet charged in the crime then drove to West Jefferson Medical Center, where surveillance video footage captured the three men now convicted getting out of the car.
While Harris and Coleman were arrested only days after the shooting, Joseph wasn’t arrested until December.
Prosecutors used cellphone tower tracking information and surveillance video to undercut Joseph’s claim that he was neither at the scene of the shooting nor in the car that delivered Coleman, his cousin, to the hospital several minutes later.
Orlan Joseph, Tavis’ father, testified Thursday that his son was at the hospital with his own car when the senior Joseph arrived there about 12:30 a.m.
Tavis Joseph’s main alibi was his ex-girlfriend. He said he was with her after he got off work the night of the shooting. He also said she had his cellphone. On Wednesday, however, Karlinda Brooks testified that she couldn’t recall where she was that night and that she did not have his cellphone.
Defense attorney Rachel Yazbeck attacked the phone records as unreliable and the hospital surveillance footage as inconclusive and ultimately subject to the word of investigators who analyzed the footage and compiled the videos shown to jurors.
Yazbeck said testimony related to Joseph’s character showed a young man who worked hard at his job at an Outback Steakhouse, spent much of his free time with his girlfriend and had no criminal record.
However, prosecutors showed jurors photos and a video that showed Joseph hanging out with Coleman and others, smoking pot while the other men flashed guns.
Sgt. Gary Barteet, of the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office, who supervised the investigation, testified that several phone calls were made between Coleman and Joseph leading up to the shooting, and that Joseph’s cellphone was picked up on towers that put him near the scene of the shooting and too far away from his girlfriend’s house to have been there. He said they also picked up calls that showed Joseph traveling toward the hospital with the others.
A video recording of Barteet’s interview with Joseph after his arrest showed Joseph apparently struggling to remember the name of his girlfriend of almost two years when asked where he was the night of the shooting.
“That’s 11 seconds where that guy is going to decide what kind of lie he’s going to tell,” Assistant District Attorney Doug Freese told jurors during closing arguments.
“He was scared,” Yazbeck said of the tape. “He’s in an interrogation (room) getting charged with murder. … It doesn’t make him a murderer; it makes him a scared 20-year-old.”
Freese characterized the shooters as arrogant men who pursued a lifestyle that allowed them to think their lives were more important than the lives of others.
He said Westerfield and Harrison may not have been model citizens but that didn’t detract from their status as victims of a terrible crime.
“They are not without blame here, but they are, absolutely, victims,” he said. “They did not deserve to lose their lives.”
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.