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The Stafford brothers were initially charged with murder in the death of 17-year-old Ethan Liming following a brawl outside the school involving the teen and his three friends and a group of men who were playing basketball at the school. At the time, Deshawn was 20 and Tyler was 19.
Liming was knocked unconscious and beaten, authorities said. Medical officials ruled Liming was killed by a blunt force head injury when his head struck pavement during the fight, according to his autopsy report. He was pronounced dead that night.
Earlier Friday, jurors visited the Market Street school where the fight took place.
Prosecutors in Friday’s opening statements said the night of the fight, Liming and his three 17-year-old friends shot at the Staffords and another person with a toy gun that fires gel pellets at a high rate of speed.
“They thought it was funny. They thought it was a joke,” said Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Jennie Shuki.
Deshawn approached the teens and “words of some kind are exchanged,” she said. Liming then shot the toy gel gun at Deshawn, who then “jumps him, punches him, goes after him.”
In the fight that ensued, Liming was knocked to the ground, where the Staffords continued punching and kicking him, Shuki said.
“When you determine the force used in this case against Ethan, you have to look at whether it was appropriate, proportionate to the threat — the threat that supposedly Ethan and his friends posed to the defendants,” Shuki said.
“Even if provoked into a fight, you’re still responsible for the outcome of that. You’re still responsible if that punch leads to someone’s death and, in this case, ladies and gentlemen, that’s what the defendants are charged with.”
Attorneys for Deshawn and Tyler Stafford plan to argue the two were defending themselves.
Donald Gallick, defense attorney for Tyler Stafford, said evidence will show Liming’s hands and knuckles were bruised, suggesting he was throwing punches in the melee.
“It was a mutual fight,” Gallick said.
Jonathan Sinn, attorney for Deshawn Stafford, called it an “unlucky punch” that sent Liming to the pavement.
He said Friday the narrative surrounding the case following the Staffords’ arrests became racially charged.
“Basically, it’s Black on white; Ethan got killed because he’s the quarterback; and these kids can’t control themselves; and what a tragedy,” Sinn said. “And it is.
“For a year, we sat silent and watched people talk about the ‘animals who attacked this boy and killed him for no reason.'”
Sinn said the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law — established in 2021 — means crime victims don’t have to run away, and can respond with reasonable force. State prosecutors bear the burden of proving the Staffords weren’t just defending themselves, he said.
“Ethan was looking for some trouble that night he shot Shawn in the head, when Shawn only had a basketball in his hands. He thought it was still funny,” Sinn said. “And when Shawn tried to get that gun off him, they fought and it was just a fight, and Ethan lost.”
The Staffords’ cousin, Donovon Jones of Akron, was accused of fighting with two of Liming’s friends. He previously pleaded no contest to misdemeanor assault charges and his jail sentence was suspended.