Judge disbands jury in Lane trial
By Jack Stephens
Published in News on November 9, 2004 2:00 PM
The first-degree murder trial of Eric Glenn Lane, accused of killing a 5-year-old girl, was stopped Monday before it was ever started in Wayne County Superior Court.
Judge D. Jack Hooks of Whiteville stopped jury selection after determining that the 33-year-old defendant could not get a fair trial because of juror misconduct. The trial was postponed indefinitely.
"It is in the best interest of justice for both the state of North Carolina and the defendant," Hooks said, "that the seated jurors be discharged, despite the objections of the defendant."
Hooks said three jurors had heard prejudicial comments in the jury room. What concerned him most was that no one had reported the comments until the sides were trying to fill the 12th and last seat.
Hooks said the trial would begin in a later court term with jury selection to start anew.
"I've never run into anything like this in my life," the judge said.
Neither had District Attorney Branny Vickory. He asked that the trial be resumed immediately, because another large jury pool had been summoned this week to hear a medical malpractice suit and a regular criminal term of court.
Defense lawyer Edwin L. West III of Wilmington said he "strenuously disagreed" with Vickory's suggestion. Hooks denied the state's motion.
For the second time, Lane asked to fire his court-appointed lawyers, West and Richard McNeil of Jacksonville, and to represent himself.
"I've been trying to get rid of this man for a while," Lane said later as he motioned toward West.
After Lane was taken to jail, he was returned to court and then taken to Dorethea Dix Hospital for a second evaluation to determine his competency to defend himself.
The return to Dix was fine with Lane, who said, "I've already been there and done that."
Lane also had asked to fire his lawyers Oct. 1 during a hearing on a pretrial motion to suppress his statements to authorities.
Lane was accused of kidnapping, raping and killing Precious Ebony Whitfield, age 5, on May 17, 2002, in his home on Brandywine Drive in Patetown. Her body was found two days later in Nahunta Creek near the Airport Road bridge.
Lane was charged with first-degree murder, first-degree kidnapping, first-degree statutory rape, first-degree sexual offense, indecent liberties with a child, and a lewd and lascivious act.
Hooks continued the trial, because the three seated jurors had not reported the prejudicial remarks until they were ordered to testify individually.
Hooks also issued a bench warrant for the arrest of juror Wayne C. Harrison, 71, of Wayne Memorial Drive, Pikeville, on a charge of indirect contempt.
Harrison, the judge said, had commented in the jury pool room about a possible death sentence for Lane, the need to bring back chain gangs and hangings, and the number of pending charges against Lane and the not-guilty pleas that he entered.
The final two seated jurors, Gary Kornegay of Indian Springs and Tracy L. Scott of Parkstown, said Friday that they had heard some of the remarks. They attributed them to an older man.
The remarks did not come to light until a prospective juror, Anne Marie Luce of Walnut Creek, had reported them when she was being interviewed about her knowledge of the case. She had said she did not live here when the alleged crimes were committed and had heard about them only in the jury room.
Because Vickory and his assistants, Terry Light and Jan Kroboth, could be potential witnesses, Hooks appointed Don Strickland, a former assistant D.A. who now has a private law practice, to prosecute the case.
At that time Lane asked for another closed-door meeting with his lawyers and the judge.
"I would strenuously object," Vickory said. "You're talking about how the case proceeds. We're absolutely entitled to be present for that."
This time the prosecutors and the audience remained in the courtroom.
West also argued that Ms. Luce had said Lane could not receive a fair trial in the county.
Vickory quickly objected again, saying the juror "drew on all Southern stereotypes and made that conclusion." The judge denied the defense motion.
Monday morning's session began with the conclusion of a closed meeting with Lane, his lawyers and the judge. They had met for almost three hours Friday afternoon.
An hour later, McNeil announced that "we're going forward with the 12 jurors."
Hooks then questioned one final prospective juror who had been excused, Deborah Graham of Buck Swamp. Ms. Scott, the 11th seated juror, had said she had heard a woman panelist say on Oct. 11 that she had gone to church with Lane or his former wife and had mentioned that Lane had kidnapped his wife. Ms. Graham admitted Monday to the state and defense that she had gone to church with Lane's former wife's relatives.
Hooks also said that because the alternate jurors had not been chosen and the entire jury had not been impaneled, Lane had not been placed in jeopardy and a mistrial would not be declared.
The trial started Oct. 11 with a two-day competency hearing. Jury selection began Oct. 13.
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