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Alleged identity-switch defendant offers no defense

By Matt Bean
Court TV

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(Court TV) -- A jury began deliberating Monday whether an East Cleveland woman masterminded an elaborate identity-swap murder scheme, as prosecutors labeled her a "wolf in sheep's clothing" and her lawyer questioned the reliability of two key witnesses.

"This case was the product of an overactive imagination," said defense lawyer James Jenkins, defending Tonica Jenkins (no relation).  Jenkins rested his case Monday morning without calling a single witness.

Prosecutors defended their key witnesses -- the victim, Melissa Latham, and another East Cleveland woman involved, Michelle Sharp -- saying that Jenkins chose them expressly for their downtrodden status.  Both women admitted to having used crack cocaine.

"We don't go to a central casting agency and pick out witnesses and victims," said Assistant County Prosecutor Saleh Awadallah.  "They are who they are."

Prosecutors say Jenkins sought to dodge drug charges in Florida by faking her own death and switching her identity. Her plan, they say, was to pay Latham to file dental records under her name, and then kill and burn her body beyond recognition. The falsified records, she hoped, would lead authorities to mistake Latham for Jenkins.

Jenkins, 27, was due to stand trial with her mother, Tonica Clement, for drug charges in Florida on April 23, 2001. In 2000, the pair purchased 22 pounds of cocaine from an undercover U.S. customs agent in Tampa. Jenkins was eventually convicted of the drug charges, and is serving a 22-year sentence. 

But the drug bust was not her first brush with the law. In 1997, Jenkins was found to have forged transcripts and letters of recommendation to gain admittance to Yale.  She was convicted and sentenced to five years probation.

The jury was not allowed to hear of Jenkins' Yale bust, but will have a slew of new charges to deliberate in her Cuyahoga County trial.  Jenkins is facing six charges including the most serious, attempted aggravated murder.  Judge Lillian J. Greene also added a lesser included option of attempted murder if the jury felt that Jenkins tried to murder Latham, but did not calculate the attempt.

Three days before the alleged assault, Jenkins, her cousin Kyle Martin, and Michelle Sharp approached Latham on the street and asked her to participate in an insurance scam.  According to Latham, Jenkins lured her to her East Cleveland home by offering her drugs and a quick buck. 

Latham did visit a dentist on the 20th, where, she told the court, she filed dental records and received a cleaning under Jenkins' name. Jenkins paid for the visit in cash, and then returned with Latham to the East Cleveland home for another night of bingeing.

The next afternoon, the weekend binge turned sour. Latham, now 29, testified that Martin knocked her to the ground and held her down for Jenkins, who repeatedly injected her with insulin.  "The b---- wanna get high, we gonna get her high," Jenkins allegedly said.

When the insulin failed to kill her, Latham told the court, Jenkins ordered Martin to beat her with a brick. "Plan B was the Brick," said prosecutor Awadallah, slamming a paper evidence bag containing the alleged bludgeon onto a table in front of the jury.

The brutal assault that followed cracked open Latham's skull, spattering blood across a file cabinet in the basement. A forensic scientist called by the defense said the DNA was Latham's to a "one in four quintillion" degree of certainly.

Martin, Jenkins' cousin, declined to testify against Jenkins in a brief courtroom appearance last Friday.  He was tried for his role in the assault, but was convicted only of kidnapping and is serving a 10-year sentence.

Jenkins' mother, Tonica Clement, is facing an obstruction of justice charge for allegedly mopping up the bloody basement before the police arrived at her East Cleveland home.  Three other charges were dropped against Clement Monday morning, including conspiracy to commit attempted aggravated murder.

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