Officer tells of finding shooting victim with dog who wouldn’t leave his side

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Philadelphia Police Officer Kevin Palmer said it was a sight he’ll never forget.

Responding to a report of gunshots near 64th Street and Woodcrest Avenue in Overbrook Farms, Palmer’s partner steered their cruiser along Woodcrest until Palmer spotted a flashlight beam shining through the darkness the night of March 12, 2015.

“I saw a man lying on his back, holding a flashlight in his left hand and a dog leash in his right,” Palmer said, his voice cracking. “The dog was just sitting by his side.”

The man was James Stuhlman, 51, husband and father and owner of a Delaware County landscaping company. The dog who wouldn’t leave his side was “Molly,” the Stuhlmans’ soft-coated wheaten terrier.

Palmer said he grabbed Stuhlman’s heavy winter coat and shook him several times, hoping to arouse him. Stuhlman, however, remained unconscious and unresponsive. It was only after Stuhlman was taken to a hospital, Palmer said, that he learned he had been shot to death.

Palmer’s description of the eerie scene that night marked Wednesday’s opening of testimony in the Philadelphia murder trial of 17-year-old Brandon Smith, one of a trio of teens who allegedly went from playing basketball to robbing and shooting Stuhlman as he walked his dog.

Smith is the only one of the three to go to trial. The 15-year-old shooter, Tyfine “Tavon” Hamilton, pleaded guilty last year to third-degree murder and was sentenced to 25 to 80 years in prison. The charges against a 14-year-old accomplice, who was not identified, were handled in juvenile court.

As outlined by Assistant District Attorney Gail Fairman, the evidence against Smith includes his own confession to taking part in the robbery as well as appearance with the two other teens on surveillance video from cameras near the scene of Stuhlman’s death.

Defense attorney Joshua E. Scarpello said Smith’s participation in the crime did not warrant guilty verdicts for first- or second-degree murder. First-degree murder [a planned malicious killing] and second-degree murder [a killing that happens while committing another felony] both carry mandatory sentences of life in prison without parole.

Although Smith did not fire the gun at Stuhlman, the law of conspiracy means he can be found criminally responsible for the acts of the shooter.

Scarpello told the jury that “it’s not an easy job that you’ve been given.” He said to watch the evidence for when Smith’s active participation in the crime began and ended.

“He never held the gun and he never pulled the trigger,” Scarpello said. “But he did go along with a bad decision.”

Also Wednesday, the jury heard from Stuhlman’s widow, Theresa Stuhlman, who said that she and her 11-year-old daughter decided to stay in that night on what was often a family activity.

She said a police officer came to the door sometime after 8:30 p.m. and asked her if she owned a dog. Stuhlman said she described Molly and asked where her husband was.

Stuhlman said the officer said he’d be back in a minute but she should remain inside the house. She said she waited, tried calling neighbors, and finally went outside, where she saw the flashing lights of police and emergency vehicles.

Stuhlman said the officer returned and said “your husband collapsed on the sidewalk nearby” and he was being taken to an emergency room.

With a friend driving her car, Stuhlman continued, police escorted them to Penn-Presbyterian Hospital.

“A chaplain came in and we learned he had been shot,” Stuhlman said. “The surgeon indicated that they could not save him.”

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