The lawyer for a 20-year-old Erie man accused of taking part in a shootout in an eastside neighborhood that involved high-powered weapons said his client's house was mistakenly targeted by the people who fired the first shots.
Cazier M. Graham thought his life was in danger and acted accordingly on Oct. 20, 2020, lawyer Eric Hackwelder said in court Thursday morning.
"I was defending myself," Graham told Erie County Judge Daniel Brabender.
More:Erie police say DNA on gun links fourth suspect to high-powered shootout in 2020
Prosecutors had a different take on Graham's actions.
Assistant District Attorney Emily Downing said Graham has an association with an east Erie gang and has been seen with guns.
"It's clear he is committed to a life of violence," Downing said.
Erie police initially charged Graham's father, Cornell M. Graham, and two other men, Ebon S. McKinzie and Damar A. McKinzie, with taking part in the shootout at East Fifth and Ash streets that investigators said involved high-powered weapons and sent bullets into a nearby house and two businesses.
Police charged Graham as a participant in May after they said evidence including a recovered gun and shell casings connected him to the incident.
Graham pleaded guilty on Sept. 26 to third-degree felony counts of carrying a firearm without a license and discharge of a firearm into an occupied structure, and to a misdemeanor count of recklessly endangering. Brabender on Thursday sentenced Graham to two to five years in prison on those charges and said he would recommend him for the state prison system's boot camp program.
"Let me remind you, Erie, Pennsylvania, is not the wild west," Brabender told Graham.
A volley of high-powered gunshots
The shooting occurred as Erie was experiencing an uptick in shootings and other gun-related crime across the city in the late summer and early fall of 2020. City police officials said the shooting at East Fifth and Ash streets was especially concerning because numerous gunshots were fired in a densely populated neighborhood, and some of the more than 30 shell casings collected came from AR-15- and AK-47-style weapons.
Among the buildings damaged by gunfire was Orsini's Corner Market, where bullets blew through an exterior wall and damaged cartons of cigarettes inside. The business was closed at the time.
There were no reported injuries in the shooting.
More:Erie police: High-powered weapons involved in eastside shootout on Tuesday night
Graham's father, Cornell M. Graham, was charged a day after the shooting. Erie police wrote in his criminal complaint that he told investigators he was taking out the garbage when two unknown males confronted him and threatened to shoot him and his house. Cornell Graham said he went back into his residence, retrieved an AK-47-style gun, came outside and was again confronted by the suspects. He said the suspects pulled out guns and began firing in his direction, and he sought cover and returned fire, investigators wrote in his complaint.
Cornell Graham was sentenced in June 2021 to three years of probation after pleading guilty to misdemeanor counts of carrying a firearm without a license and recklessly endangering.
Police charged brothers Ebon and Damar McKinzie with being involved in the shootout nine days after the incident. Investigators said video and other evidence led them to identify the pair as suspects.
Damar McKinzie was sentenced in June 2021 to one year and 10 months to five years in prison after pleading guilty to discharging a firearm into an occupied structure and recklessly endangering. Ebon McKinzie was sentenced in October 2021 to three to six years in prison after pleading guilty to carrying a firearm without a license and recklessly endangering, according to court records.
Fourth suspect identified, charged
Erie police in May filed charges against Cazier Graham in the incident after investigators said a handgun and ammunition found in his bedroom during a search following the shooting matched shell casings collected outside.
Investigators also wrote in Graham's criminal complaint that police had seized Graham's clothing and it tested positive for the presence of gunshot residue. Police additionally learned in April that a DNA sample taken from the seized gun matched a DNA sample taken from Graham, according to information in the complaint.
Hackwelder, in his comments to Brabender before sentencing, said Graham denies being part of a gang. What happened was that Graham and his father were attacked at their residence with gunfire, Hackwelder said, adding that he does not believe Graham and his father were the intended targets of the shooting.
Graham also told Brabender that he is not a gang member.
Downing, in her remarks, said there is evidence that Graham is associated with an east Erie gang, the Five or 5ive. She presented testimony from an Erie police officer who said the gang was feuding with another Erie gang, and that conflict resulted in at least three homicides in the city.
Anything less than a state prison sentence for Graham would indicate Erie's problem of guns and gangs is not being taken seriously, Downing said.
Contact Tim Hahn at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ETNhahn.
This article originally appeared on Erie Times-News: DA cites suspected gang ties as Erie man sentenced in 2020 shootout