By Jim McKinnon
HOMEWOOD, Pa. — Police are considering whether the shooting death of a Homewood woman Wednesday is connected with her status as a key prosecution witness in an upcoming homicide trial.
It would have been the second homicide trial in seven years at which Nicole Bennett, 37, was a key witness for the state.
She also is the most recent of a handful of witnesses who have been killed before they could testify in court about murder cases.
In Ms. Bennett's second case, Brian Martin, 28, of Wilkinsburg, is charged with the Jan. 5 slaying of Terry Adams, 19, and the wounding of a 17-year-old boy.
The two teens were shot in the living room of a residence on North Braddock Avenue in Point Breeze.
At the time of the investigation, a police affidavit included the words of an "unnamed witness" who had been in the kitchen of the home when the gunman, identified by the nickname, "Barney," entered. The witness, now believed to have been Ms. Bennett, told police that Mr. Martin pulled a pistol as he approached the living room. As he entered that room, the witness said, the first of as many as 13 gunshots was fired.
Ms. Bennett was not harmed in that shooting.
At a preliminary hearing in March, Ms. Bennett testified against Mr. Martin, who was ordered to stand trial on charges of homicide, attempted homicide and aggravated assault.
Her body was found Wednesday morning at the rear of an abandoned house in the 7500 block of Formosa Way in Homewood. She had been shot once in the neck, the Allegheny County medical examiner said.
"There are too many other things going on [with the Martin case] to say she was killed because she was an informant," said police Cmdr. Thomas Stangrecki, who heads the bureau's major crimes section.
Ms. Bennett had a number of things going on in her life that may have heightened her danger.
She has a lengthy criminal record, including two cases for which trials were pending. In 1994, she was a prosecution witness who helped convict Paul Ford Jr. of second-degree murder.
Some Homewood residents are becoming increasingly wary of the ongoing street violence and reports of a hit list of so called "snitches" from around the city.
Law enforcement authorities expressed similar concern with the emergence of the "snitch list" that had been circulated at the Allegheny County Jail, and which made its way onto the streets.
Some people among the dozens on the list have since been killed, although investigators have not directly connected their deaths with their participation in homicide investigations.
"District Attorney (Stephen) Zappala takes very seriously any attempts to intimidate, threaten or harm witnesses, and such attempts are prosecuted vigorously," his spokesman Mike Manko said yesterday.
"Having said that, it's too early to speculate on why Ms. Bennett was killed and by whom. However," he added, "nothing's been ruled out."
Among the concerns is the potential of such a list having a chilling effect on witness participation.
Julian Bennett Sr., the father of Nicole Bennett, said on Wednesday that neither his daughter's death nor the presumed threats against informants could deter him from helping to solve any case.
"You could be standing at the scene talking about it and the one who did it could be standing right there," Mr. Bennett said. "But if I saw it I would say what I saw. I don't care what they do to me. This [violence] has got to stop."
Copyright 2007 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette