08/12/04 — Lawyers argue whether Lane's rights were violated

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Lawyers argue whether Lane's rights were violated

By Barbara Arntsen
Published in News on August 12, 2004 1:59 PM

Testimony ended Wednes-day in a hearing to determine whether the confessions of a man accused of murdering a 5-year-old girl should be admitted into his trial.

But it may be a couple of months before a decision is made about whether Eric Lane's statements to law enforcement officers should be thrown out of court. The judge plans to consider the testimony heard this week in Wayne County Superior Court and receive written statements from the lawyers.

Precious Whitfield

Precious Whitfield

The 32-year-old Lane is facing kidnapping, sexual assault and murder charges in the death of 5-year-old Precious Whitfield of Wayne County.

The Wayne County Sheriff's Office and the SBI say that Lane, who lived down the street from where Precious was playing the day she was murdered, confessed to them.

Lane's lawyers say his rights were violated, while the prosecution says Lane was aware of his rights and volunteered his confession.

After several hours of testimony from Det. Sgts. Tony Morris and Dean Roscoe, Sheriff Carey Winders was unexpectedly called to the stand.

Defense lawyer Ed West of Wilmington asked Winders about when he first considered Lane a suspect.

Winders said he had not taken notes on the case, nor reviewed any of the files within the past two years, but thought it was a couple of days after Precious disappeared in 2002.

Winders did recall that after the body was discovered he had a short conversation with Lane at the Sheriff's Office.

"As we talked, he became visibly upset and began pinching his arm." Winders said. "When I asked him what should happen to the person who did this, he said that he didn't know."

Winders said that statement put some questions in his mind about Lane, and West asked him why that statement would make him suspicious.

"Because if a child is murdered, a large percentage of people could tell you exactly what the person deserved," Winders replied.

Winders also said that during that conversation Lane told him that he "needed some beer bad" and wanted to get home and get some beer.

Sheriff's Det. Sgt. Dean Roscoe also testified that when deputies were searching Lane's house, Lane asked him if it was all right if he got a beer out of the refrigerator.

Roscoe said he told Lane that it was his house, and he was "free to do what he wanted to do."

In closing arguments, the defense said that those statements made to Winders and Roscoe showed that Lane thought he was in custody, even though he hadn't been charged.

West said he believed there were some obvious problems with the way the investigation was handled.

He said Lane was read his Miranda rights at the Sheriff's Office on Sunday, remained there for several hours and was taken back to his home later while deputies conducted a search.

"I contend he was in custody then," West said. "They tell him if he takes a polygraph it will clear his name."

A little more than 24 hours later, they take him to Greenville to the SBI office for the polygraph test, West said, and there was no way Lane could leave.

"He's not in the same city; he has no car," West said. "It's not like he'll walk away from the SBI office. At that point, he was a suspect, and there were no Miranda warnings at the SBI."

West argued that the confession taken later that afternoon at the Sheriff's Office stemmed from Lane's confession to the SBI agent.

"That makes it fruit of the poisonous tree," he said.

District Attorney Branny Vickory said that no constitutional rights were violated during the process.

Vickory said that the first few interviews with Lane, at his home, were the result of officers canvassing the neighborhood looking for a missing child.

"They were trying to talk to everyone," Vickory said, "and put together information about the girl."

Everything turned around when the body was found the next day, Vickory said.

That's when a witness told deputies that he had seen a man on a red scooter at the bridge on the night Precious disappeared. Lane owned a red scooter.

Vickory says they decided to follow up on that and talk to Lane again, but they were still pursuing other leads.

"The Sheriff's Office was the natural place to go and talk," Vickory said. "They had interviewed the mother there, the boyfriend and others. Being taken to the Sheriff's Office, that in and of itself, is not custody."

Vickory also said that Lane had three previous arrests, so he knew the process.

"And the fact that someone was 'mirandized' doesn't mean they are in custody," Vickory said. "It was just an over-abundance of caution."

The district attorney also couldn't understand how the defense could think Lane was in custody while his house was being searched.

"I don't see how you say he's in custody; he goes in and out," Vickory said. "And at some point he goes over and asks if he can have a beer. If the police are holding you, they're not going to let you drink beer."

Vickory said that the reason he had asked the Sheriff's Office to write down Lane's confession was because it wasn't the SBI's policy to provide written and signed confessions, at that time. Usually, he said, the SBI would condense the notes into a few paragraphs on the completed report, and the notes from the interview would be destroyed.

It wasn't until several months later that officials learned that the SBI had the original confession signed by Lane in writing at the SBI offices in Greenville, he said.

But they still had the second confession at the Sheriff's Office, which was given after Lane was read his Miranda rights.

"He was cooperating," Vickory said. "From a human side, it was probably a weight coming off his shoulders.

West said that Lane was not given any warning regarding his consent to the search.

The consent form that was given to Lane stated that he agreed "after being advised of rights," but no one had given him any information about searches.

Assistant District Attorney Terry Light said that case law made it clear that no warnings were required for consenting to a search.

"He consented of his own free will," Light said. "There were no threats or promises. He was cooperative and volunteered."

At the end of the three-day hearing, lawyers for both sides they wanted to expand their points in additional written briefs to the judge.

Those briefs won't be filed until the hearing has been transcribed by the court reporter. The judge will then make a decision on whether the confession can be heard at trial, which is scheduled for fall.