Old charges dismissed against 2 accused in cookout slayings

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A Pennsylvania judge has dismissed drug and weapons charges stemming from a 2013 case against two men who were later charged in an ambush at a cookout that killed five adults and an unborn child last year.

Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge David Cashman on Monday granted a dismissal request from defense attorneys for 29-year-old Cheron Shelton and 27-year-old Robert Thomas along with a third defendant in the drug case, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.

Defense attorneys praised the ruling and reasserted their clients' innocence in the March 2016 killings in the Pittsburgh suburb of Wilkinsburg, in which prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

The defendants original were charged in connection with heroin and stolen weapons allegedly found at a Wilkinsburg home in February 2013, but the charges were dismissed the following month and again in July 2013 but were refiled in April 2016 as county homicide investigators worked to solve the slayings. Defense attorneys objected, arguing that the refiled charges were a pretext to take Shelton and Thomas into custody because they had been identified as suspects in the homicide case.

The two defendants are each charged with six counts of criminal homicide in the killings. Prosecutors suspect that a man wounded in the gunfire had killed Shelton's friend in 2013, and they have said they are looking for that man.

Prosecutors said Thomas fired 18 shots from a .40-caliber pistol into a group of about 15 partygoers, prompting them to run toward a rear porch where authorities say Shelton was hiding behind a fence. Prosecutors said Shelton peppered the fleeing crowd from a few feet away with 30 shots from a rifle similar to an AK-47.

Brittany Powell, 27, who was renting the home, was killed as were her siblings Chanetta Powell, 25, and Jerry Shelton, 35. The county medical examiner ruled that Chanetta Powell's unborn son died because of her death. The siblings' cousin, Tina Shelton, 37, and their friend, Shada Mahone, 26, also died in the attack.

The two men also face charges of criminal conspiracy, aggravated assault and reckless endangerment. Authorities said bullets pierced the walls of the residence, wounding three other people. Three children were in the house at the time but unharmed.