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Gun could have fired without trigger pull, expert says

One of the three pieces of wood seized by police as evidence in the murder case against Brandon Phillips.
One of the three pieces of wood seized by police as evidence in the murder case against Brandon Phillips. - Submitted

Firearms experts testifies at Phillips murder trial in St. John’s, says gun fired on impact during testing

The gun allegedly used to shoot and kill Larry Wellman later fired on impact when tested in a police crime lab, without the trigger being touched.

That’s what firearms expert Laura Knowles, leader of the firearms section at the RCMP’s national crime lab in Ottawa, testified at the murder trial of Brandon Phillips, 29, in Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court in St. John’s Monday.

Knowles had examined a Winchester 2200 12-gauge pump-action shotgun, seized by the RNC at the Quidi Vidi Road home where Phillips was arrested two years ago, as well as pieces of splintered wood, a shotgun shell, pellets and a wad sent to her by police. The wad and some of the pellets had been recovered from Wellman’s body during surgery the night he died.

Wellman was shot Oct. 3, 2015, while a patron of the bar at the Captain’s Quarters hotel in St. John’s. A masked man, alleged to be Phillips, entered with a shotgun and demanded money from the bartender. Wellman was shot when he attempted to intervene in the robbery, and died in hospital hours later.

One particle of gunshot residue found on mask allegedly worn by Phillips

Knowles said shot discharge testing is standard in forensic cases when a single shot was fired, and in the case of the shotgun in question, involved dropping the gun on each of its six sides from a height of two feet. When the gun was dropped upside down, it discharged by itself, Knowles said.

Next, Knowles placed the gun in a plastic device meant to mimic a shooter’s typical stance, then raised a rubber mallet over her head with two hands and hit the gun with moderate force.

“I found that if I hit the top of the receiver with the mallet with moderate force, it was susceptible to discharge,” Knowles said. She said she hit the gun with the mallet three times and it fired each time.

Knowles said she tested other guns of the same make and model and the same thing happened. She testified she believes a weakened spring inside the gun is to blame, and said she had checked for recalls on the gun and had emailed the manufacturer to see if others had reported similar issues, but she didn’t get a reply.

Answering questions from Crown prosecutor Mark Heerema, Knowles said the gun fired on impact without any lag.

Over the past two weeks, defence lawyers Mark Gruchy and Jeff Brace have focused on Wellman’s attempts to stop the armed robber, particularly his use of a small table to strike the gun in the masked man’s hands. Surveillance video from the hotel bar shows Wellman thrusting the table at the gunman right before he is shot.

“Now!” the masked man is heard yelling once Wellman falls to the ground.

Under cross-examination by Gruchy, Knowles said she believed the gun would discharge on impact even if the safety lock was on.

Gruchy questioned Knowles about police policy to test shot discharge in single-shot forensic cases.

“So it’s a question of intent?” he asked.

“Yes,” she replied.

Regarding the three pieces of wood — two recovered by police at the scene of the shooting and one seized, along with the gun, from the Quidi Vidi Road home where Phillips was arrested — Knowles testified they were a match and came from either the gun in question or a similar one. The pellets and wad were measured to be consistent with what one would expect to come from a Winchester 2200, she said.

A DNA expert will take the stand when Phillips’ trial continues Tuesday.

Twitter: @tara_bradbury

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