12/14/04 — Judge, D.A. testify in tainted-jury case

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Judge, D.A. testify in tainted-jury case

By Jack Stephens
Published in News on December 14, 2004 2:09 PM

A judge, the district attorney and former jurors testified Monday in the case of a man who is accused of causing the jury in a murder trial to be disbanded.

Wayne C. Harrison, 71, of Pikeville is charged with making prejudicial comments in front of jurors in the Eric Lane murder trial. Lane is charged with killing 5-year-old Precious Whitfield. His trial was postponed because the judge felt the jury pool had been tainted.

One juror said Harrison had made comments about Lane's guilt, while others said they were unsure if he was the one. Harrison has denied he made the comments.

The judge in the trial, D. Jack Hooks of Whiteville, had ordered jurors not to discuss the case, and then stopped all proceedings when he learned that the discussions had occurred. He then charged Harrison.

Testimony in the tainted-jury hearing ended today in Wayne County Superior Court. The judge is expected to make a decision this week.

Juror Gary T. Kornegay testified Monday that Harrison told a juror that Lane ought to get the death penalty. The other juror said he should get life.

But another juror, Tracy L. Scott of Parkstown, and a prospective alternate juror, Anne Marie Luce of Walnut Creek, could not identify Harrison as the person who made the comments.

Judge Hooks, who presided over the four-week trial before it was halted, testified that the jury clerk had passed out instructions to the jury pool and then he read them again. Among the instructions was for the jurors not to discuss the case before they began deliberations.

Hooks testified that Mrs. Luce had said she heard about the case in the jury pool room. After questioning her and several others about the man, Hooks said, he began to focus on Harrison.

Hooks said several prospective jurors said the person who made the comment was an older man and the only other man in the jury pool room was about 20 years old. Harrison denied making the comments.

Hooks told special prosecutor Don Strickland that the comments forced him to stop jury selection. "It'll have to be done all over again," he said.

During cross-examination by defense lawyer Will Bland, the judge said one of his biggest concerns was that the comments had not been reported to him and ultimately caused him on Nov. 9 to disband the jury.

Judge Kenneth C. Crow, presiding over the hearing, asked Hooks if he was concerned that if he did not dismiss the jury that the case would have to be tried again. Hooks agreed.

Mrs. Luce and Ms. Scott testified that they received three sets of instructions -- on a videotape, in writing and orally by Judge Hooks -- that said they could not discuss the case.

Mrs. Luce said she heard a woman say she knew Lane. From across the room, she said, she heard several people talk about death by hangings and chain gangs. She said Harrison was in the group, but she could not say if he had made the remark.

Ms. Scott said she recalled someone saying that "we should go back to the days of hangings." But she could not identify the man. She said Harrison appeared frustrated.

District Attorney Branny Vickory testified that Hooks had told jurors not to discuss the case. He also noted that one-third of his staff worked on the case for more than four weeks.

After Crow denied Bland's motion to dismiss the case, Bland called three jurors to testify. Deborah L. Graham, Lisa Jones and Brian Knox all said they did not hear the prejudicial comments.

Lane, 33, was accused of kidnapping, raping and murdering 5-year-old Precious Ebony Whitfield on May 17, 2002. Lane lived on Brandywine Drive in Patetown, a few doors from where the little girl was visiting family friends. Her body was found two days later. He was arrested the next day.