Murder suspect remains in jail    

File photoThomas Warner appears for his murder arraignment July 19, 2018, in Haverhill District Court, which was temporarily located in the Newburyport courthouse. 

HAVERHILL — A judge refuses to release a man charged with murdering a Haverhill teenager, even though a defense lawyer says the man  faces the strong possibility of being infected by COVID-19 while behind bars.

Salem Superior Court Judge Thomas Drechsler on Thursday denied a motion by Attorney James Krasnoo that his client, Thomas Warner, 23, be released to home confinement during the coronavirus crisis.

Warner is one of four men charged with first degree murder in the death of Bryce Finn, 18. Finn was shot to death in the doorway of his Bradford home in June 2017, a short time after he graduated from Haverhill High School.

In denying the motion, the judge said that if he followed Krasnoo's logic "every inmate in the state would have to be released."

During the hearing, Warner appeared via video from jail to hear Krasnoo's arguments and the judge's response. With courts closed during the pandemic, Kasnoo and Assistant District Attorney Christina Pujals Ronan, prosecutor in the case, participated in the hearing by phone.

During the nearly hour-long hearing, Krasnoo pressed the judge to release Warner, who lived in Delaware when he was arrested, to the custody of his parents. They have moved to Massachusetts, according to Krasnoo.

While arguing for his client's release, Krasnoo interrupted the judge several times, causing Drechsler to pause the hearing. He resumed it several minutes later, but only after Krasnoo agreed not to interrupt again.

After filing a 13-page motion outlining his request, Krasnoo went before the judge to cite concerns with previous cases of COVID-19 at  Hampshire County Jail in Northhampton, Massachusetts, where Warner is being held without bail, although Krasnoo acknowledged there were no cases there as of Thursday.

The judge said holding Warner in a facility free of COVID-19 could be a healthier option than releasing him to home confinement.

"There are no cases today and there aren't many communities that can say that," the judge said of the jail having no current cases of the virus. "It could be argued he's in a pretty safe place ... safer than society as a whole. The facility has done an admirable and impressive job at eliminating COVID and (limiting) its spread."

Krasnoo cited examples of the jail not practicing social distancing, such as allowing 20 inmates outdoors on Wednesday to play softball. The judge asked for the source of that information, and Krasnoo said he's been receiving daily reports from Warner and has also spoken to officials at the jail.

Initially, prosecuting attorney Ronan compelled Krasnoo to file additional details about Warner's proposed release plan. In court Thursday, she said she was satisfied with his proposal, but could not ignore the severity of the murder charge against Warner. She also said forensic evidence and statements from him and a co-defendant implicate him in the crime.

"It's clear this robbery was planned for hours and that Warner had ample time to retreat," Ronan said.

Warner was indicted for Finn's June 2017 murder in October 2018, along with Nicholas Mandato, 22, and Kenneth Pitts, 19, both of Delaware. A fourth man, Joseph "Max" Benner, 22, was indicted in March 2019 on charges of murder and armed assault with intent to rob. Benner is the only defendant from Haverhill.

Benner knew Pitts from spending part of his childhood in Delaware and the two kept in touch, according to court documents. When Pitts was interested in getting marijuana in 2017, Benner suggested Finn, who grew the drug, as a target for a robbery, the documents said.

On the day of Finn's murder, Pitts, Mandato and Warner drove from Delaware to Massachusetts and met Benner, according to the court documents. 

Benner, who drove the men to Finn's home, told police he stayed in the car during the attempted robbery and knew Pitts had a gun, according to court documents. 

According to a police report, Benner said he heard a single gunshot, then saw the other three men running from Finn's home back to the car. The group said Finn had confronted them at his back door with a gun, according to the police report. Benner then drove Mandato, Pitts and Warner back to his house in Haverhill where he got out, and the other three returned to Delaware, court documents said. 

In court Thursday, Ronan disputed claims that there was a second gun involved in the incident. She said there was no forensic evidence found at the scene.

The judge said Warner actively engaged in efforts to cover up the crime and repeatedly lied to conceal his involvement. The judge also said Warner has a very high incentive to flee.

The judge scheduled the next hearing for June 25 and said Warner's trial could begin this fall.

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