A man accused of burning five teenagers alive in 1978 in what was once one of New Jersey's longest running cold cases told a jury during his closing argument Friday that there was no evidence to connect him to the case.
"I am innocent of these charges," said Lee Evans, who faces 10 murder-related counts. "First and foremost: I am not a murderer."
Evans has been representing himself and gave his own 40-minute closing argument Friday morning in a Newark courtroom in which he pointed out what he said were major inconsistencies in the testimony. He noted that several witnesses gave differing testimony about when they saw him with the teenagers, whom he occasionally hired for odd-jobs.
Evans also reviewed the criminal history of several witnesses, including his cousin and the state's star witness, Philander Hampton. Hampton pleaded guilty and was given a 10-year sentence in exchange for the testimony.
The case, originally classified as a missing persons case in 1978, went cold for decades until a pair of Newark detectives on the cusp of retirement decided to re-investigate it as an unsolved homicide.
In 2008, Hampton told authorities that he and Evans had lured the teens to a vacant house in Newark with the promise of odd jobs, put them in a closet, secured the door with a 6-inch nail. He said Evans poured gasoline and set the house ablaze — all in retaliation for the teens stealing some marijuana from him.
The bodies of 17-year-olds Melvin Pittman and Ernest Taylor and 16-year-olds Alvin Turner, Randy Johnson and Michael McDowell were never found.
Several witnesses testified seeing the boys for a final time on the night of Aug. 20, 1978, some of them in the back of Evans' light green handyman truck with "Evans & Sons" painted on the side. Evans was a well-known presence in the community where the boys lived, and where Evans still lives. He pointed to that fact Friday as proof of his innocence.
"After 33 years, I've been living in the same community. I never left. I never ran anywhere," Evans said. "I've faced the same people every day."
A court-appointed attorney who has been assisting Evans was giving additional closing remarks following Evans Friday morning. The prosecution is expected to give its closing argument Friday afternoon.