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Franklin County jury mulls verdict in tangled murder case

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ROCKY MOUNT — The murder of a 20-year-old Franklin County man, who was shot in his home, was a botched robbery carried out by some of his childhood friends in the pursuit of drugs, money and guns according to testimony offered in a jury trial happening this week.

Qu’Shawn Tylek Manns, who described the victim as like a brother, is accused of masterminding the scheme and firing the shot that killed Justin Chase Prillaman.

Manns, now 22, testified in Franklin County Circuit Court that he played no part in the 2020 slaying and was home alone at the time, painting the nursery that he and his girlfriend were readying for the child they expected in a few weeks.

In court, three of his five co-defendants have testified against him, saying Manns was the only one in the crew who had gone into the house when a single gunshot rang out.

“Shawn runs out and said he blew J.P.’s brains out of his f-----g head,” said Treavon Taylor, who along with Manns was among the first wave of people arrested in the case.

One co-defendant testified that Manns was innocent, and had gone home hours before the bloodshed.

This week’s trial, which started Monday and focused on Manns, is the first convened in a case that was already complex due to the sheer number of accused co-conspirators. Two of the defendants charged with playing a lesser part in the home invasion reached plea deals last year and are now serving 15-year sentences.

A third man, who shot and seriously wounded 18-year-old James Matthew Prillaman, entered a plea on the scope of the charges he faced, but is still waiting to learn his ultimate fate at sentencing.

Manns is being tried on 14 charges that include first-degree murder and armed burglary. Jury deliberations began Wednesday, after testimony was heard from 19 people, and are set to continue Friday.

The dueling accounts offered by those arrested in the case — as well as their credibility and their motives for incriminating or absolving Manns — were a key focus of the arguments made in court.

Their recollections of what led up to the early morning shooting of July 14, 2020, all begin at the same point — a music video.

The six young men charged, acquainted from their school days, gathered at Power Dam the evening before to film a group video while rapping and posing with guns

From there, they hopped from place to place, seemingly aimless. Smoking weed and sipping from a small bottle of liquor while hanging out in parking lots. Making a food run to Cook Out. Shooting guns outside of the mobile home where Manns lived, although he testified he put a stop to that.

Manns said he didn’t own a gun himself, and wasn’t particularly familiar with them. He said he doesn’t drink but had smoked marijuana that night. Everyone smoked, he said. It was part of what bonded them in school.

Others in the group said it was Manns who pitched the idea of a robbery and set his sights on Prillaman as someone who had marijuana, guns and possibly cash in his house. The others — some but not all of whom were also friends with Prillaman — were onboard and roles were assigned.

Manns was said to take on the job of knocking at the door and getting Prillaman to come outside of his basement apartment on Salthouse Branch Road. Some were poised to hold Prillaman at gunpoint while others raided the place.

The plan, carried out sometime around 4 a.m., went awry when Manns didn’t get Prillaman to come outside and instead went inside with him. Moments later, a gunshot was heard. Investigators said Prillaman was found later on the floor of the front room, shot once in the back of the head.

Manns, taking the stand in his defense, said he knew nothing about a robbery and would have protested if anyone proposed that to him.

“They’re lying,” he said of those who named him. “... I did not do any of that.”

Defense attorney Perry Harrold argued others were pointing fingers at Manns in hope of deflecting blame for the most serious crime in the case and securing leniency for their own charges.

“They’re trying to save their skins. It’s as simple as that,” he said. “... They’re trying to get a better deal. This was a vicious murder, a cowardly murder, they don’t want that hung on them.”

The co-defendants who implicated Manns said they hoped cooperating would help them in their own cases. They also said they were telling the truth.

“It came to a point where I felt justice had to be served,” said Austin Lane, who testified he was a lookout for the robbery. “... It’s hard to sleep at night.”

No sentencing deals were offered to the defendants who testified, prosecutors said. Lane and Taylor have no deals in place, and their cases remain active. Assistant prosecutor Sandra Workman argued it was powerful that they would still testify and admit their part in what happened.

The defense noted Lane had been set to be a witness for them until recently. Harrold pressed him on what happened. Lane said no promises had been made to him, and repeated that he wanted to tell the truth.

When the robbery unfolded in 2020, Justin Prillaman’s younger brother, Matthew, also was shot after being awakened by the first gunshot and heading down the hall, armed with a handgun, to see what was happening.

Te’Sean Brooks, who was standing on the porch next to the entryway, has pleaded to opening fire three times after hearing the younger Prillaman coming along with the sound of a racking gun.

Matthew Prilliman was struck by each bullet. He collapsed on the floor and later lost a piece of his lung but survived.

He lost consciousness, and could not identify the home invaders.

Manns said he was nowhere near the Prillaman house when that happened. He testified he peeled away from the group hours earlier and grabbed a ride home with co-defendant Sean Schwallenberg.

Schwallenberg, who’s serving a 15-year prison sentence in the case, supported that account and said both left and weren’t part of what followed.

In doing so, he contested the details of a plea agreement he struck last year, as well as statements from his grandmother who testified to things she saw later when Schwallenberg returned a car that he had borrowed from her.

Schwallenberg said he accepted the plea, not because he was guilty, but because he feared a more severe sentence.

He, too, said his testimony this week was the truth.

The 12-person jury deliberating in Manns’ case is set to resume its work Friday morning.

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