Defendants will face a jury together in a joinder trial

ALLEN COUNTY, Ind. (WANE) – As preparations continue for the trial of two men accused of participating in the beating and drowning death of a 35-year-old Decatur woman, the victim’s sister-in-law says justice can’t happen soon enough.

“I’m really scared honestly about everything because in May, it will be two years, and we are still here and we haven’t gotten anywhere,” said Destiny Erhardt. “Tiffany and her kids deserve justice.”

Terry Smith, Jr., 35, and Ajaylan Malik Shabazz, 25, will face a jury together in what is known as a joinder trial, something unusual in Allen County, but not elsewhere, said Shabazz’s attorney Robert Scremin.

Family says justice can’t come soon enough in the joinder trial scheduled for April 25. Terry Smith, Jr. and Ajaylan Shabazz will stand trial together.

Both men appeared in front of Allen Superior Court Judge David Zent Thursday morning for a pretrial hearing with a trial still scheduled to begin April 25. Smith’s attorney, Thomas Allen, asked for time to consult an expert witness.

Shabazz took a plea deal last year in May for Level 3 aggravated battery, but then decided against doing that. That leaves him no other alternative but to go to trial.

Both Smith and Shabazz maintain their innocence, piling the blame on Ariona Darling, a tiny 19-year-old who they claim drowned Tiffany Ferris. Darling hung herself at the Allen County Jail a month after Ferris was killed. Her family said she’d been bullied and threatened through the jail plumbing.

Erhardt has been steadfast in attending every hearing since Ferris was found naked in a bathtub the morning of May 21, 2021. The coroner said she’d been beaten, stomped and held down until she drowned.

At the crime scene in a ground floor vacant room at the Suburban Extended Stay on West Coliseum Boulevard, technicians found scissors and carpet cut to remove blood stains. Drug paraphernalia was also found at the scene.

Scremin said that by combining trials, it saves on conducting two trials

“The way it works, it’s essentially like any other trial, but there will be two defense attorneys and both defendants will be on trial at the same time. Each attorney will have an opportunity to make an opening statement and a closing statement, make their own objections, cross examine each of their witnesses. It will happen much like a regular trial,” he said.

It is unusual in Superior Court to have a joined defendant, Scremin said.

“It’s a little more common in federal court. It makes the trial a lot longer, but it keeps from having to do two different trials,” Scremin said.

Often the government will try to get one of the defendants to take a plea and testify against the other defendant, “but in this case, neither defendant has agreed to testify against the other, so they’re both maintaining their innocence and so the prosecution is going forward with both defendants,” Scremin added.

Seeing both defendants together Thursday was difficult for Erhardt.

“It’s hard. Right before they came in, I got a chill. And then I couldn’t stop shaking. It’s so hard to sit there and see them, just to see them, just to know that they hurt her so badly,” Erhardt said.

Ferris’ daughter, who turns three this year, “never got to know her,” Erhardt said right after the hearing.  

“She’ll never know her mom. Her son (who is seven) talks all the time, when he comes to visit our house with his dad and he’ll say, ‘my mommy’s an angel in heaven.’ Over and over. And so I know that they miss her.

“I just hope that somehow in the future… that someone can take a look at our justice system. Families shouldn’t have to go through this over and over and over for years and take time off work and devote their life to this because it’s not fair and we don’t get restitution for that.”