11/24/04 — Lane wins right to defend self

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Lane wins right to defend self

By Jack Stephens
Published in News on November 24, 2004 2:00 PM

Eric Glenn Lane, accused of murdering a 5-year-old girl, will be allowed to defend himself after lawyers argued over whether he should have that right.

Lane's written motion to fire his two court-appointed lawyers was allowed Tuesday by Judge D. Jack Hooks in Wayne County Superior Court. Hooks deemed that Lane had, at most, a third-grade reading level, but that was not enough to deny his right to defend himself.

Psychiatrists also testified to Lane's ability to understand what he was doing.

The 33-year-old Lane had tried to fire his lawyers, Edwin L. West III of Wilmington and Richard McNeil of Jacksonville, on Oct. 1 during a pretrial hearing on another motion and then changed his mind five days later.

This time Lane was adamant about wanting to represent himself, although he had completed only the eighth grade and had very limited writing and reading skills.

Lane offered the motion Nov. 9, when the trial was recessed because of alleged juror misconduct. Hooks then ordered that Lane be evaluated again to determine his competency to represent himself.

After Tuesday's hearing, defense lawyer McNeil said Lane "was less exuberant" when he got the ruling that he wanted.

West declined comment, except to say that he and McNeil had worked very hard for Lane. Before the trial, both lawyers admitted that this was their toughest case. McNeil added that "no other case was a close second."

Hooks, of Whiteville, said he would turn the case over to the resident Wayne County Superior Court judge, Jerry Braswell.

Braswell is expected to discuss scheduling and other matters with the district attorney's office and Lane during the Dec. 6 court term. Lane also can be assisted by appointed stand-by lawyers.

Lane was charged with the murder of Precious Ebony Whitfield, age 5, on May 17, 2002, in his home on Brandywine Drive in Patetown and then dumping the little girl's body in Nahunta Creek near the Airport Road bridge. If convicted of first-degree murder, Lane would be sentenced by the same jury to either life in prison or death.

"I'm tired. I ready for it to be over. ... I want to speed things up," Lane had been quoted as saying during a recent psychiatric interview.

The psychiatrist, Dr. Robert Rollins of Dorothea Dix Hospital in Raleigh, repeated the statement Tuesday when he was questioned by the defense.

Dr. Rollins also told District Attorney Branny Vickory that Lane had said he either wanted to be acquitted or executed. The psychiatrist said Lane did not want to spend a long time in a state prison.

West, the object of Lane's wrath, had opened Tuesday's hearing, saying a defendant must be literate under North Carolina law and "we don't believe Mr. Lane is literate."

But Dr. Rollins said Lane understood the charges, the possible maximum punishments and the consequences of his decision.

"In my opinion, he has the ability to make a rational decision," Rollins said.

The other defense witness, Dr. Claudia Coleman, a psychologist, said she was not convinced that Lane understood the consequences nor did he have the ability to represent himself because of his limited education.

In a closing argument, McNeil said the defense "believes the evidence has clearly demonstrated that Mr. Lane is not literate." McNeil said Lane read at a third-grade level and had to copy the writing of others. He said he could not find one case in which a defendant presented evidence while representing himself.

Vickory argued that while considering Lane's age and literacy, "I would much rather see him represented by an attorney. But at the same time he has the constitutional right not to be represented by an attorney."

Judge Hooks then questioned Lane about the implications of his decision.

"I believe you would be much better off with the lawyers sitting with you," Hooks said. "You have a number of legal rights that might be denied without these attorneys. Do you understand?"

"Yes," the defendant answered.

"You said you wanted to get rid of this man Mr. West?" Hooks asked.

Lane said he did.

"Do you want to be represented by another lawyer or lawyers?" the judge asked.


"Have you considered the benefits of having lawyers?" Hooks asked.

"I haven't seen none," Lane replied.

Then Hooks asked Lane to sign the waiver-of-counsel form. Lane admitted that he could not read it. The judge asked the bailiff to assist Lane in signing it at the right place. Lane then swore on the Bible to waive his right to counsel.

After a break, Hooks then issued his ruling. He said Lane's literacy level was at best found to be the third grade but more likely was between kindergarten and the second grade. The evidence showed that Lane suffered from anxiety disorders, including post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Hooks concluded that while "the defendant is largely illiterate, and the court has carefully considered same and while it puts him at a disadvantage, his lack of ability to read and write should not stand in the way of his right to make a freely and informed decision." Then the judge granted the motion.