06/29/05 — Polygraph test results not allowed

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Polygraph test results not allowed

By Matt Shaw
Published in News on June 29, 2005 1:45 PM

The judge in Eric Lane's murder trial ruled Tuesday that jurors will not hear any more details about a lie-detector test that Lane reportedly failed two days after Precious Whitfield's body was found.

During an hour-long session without the jury present, Superior Court Judge Gary Trawick said he won't allow testimony about the test results.

"I don't see how you can bring the polygraph in without the whole trial becoming about the polygraph tests, which are already known to be unreliable," Trawick said. "I have great faith in jurors being able to sort out the facts, but this would make them more liable to errors."

Glenn Barfield, one of Lane's lawyers, said the defense is not interested in debating the validity of polygraph tests. Rather, they wanted to explore how State Bureau of Investigation agent Joe Smith used the results of this test as leverage to get Lane to make a confession.

"If we're prevented from attacking that, we'll be effectively prevented from making a defense," Barfield said.

Lane's attorneys have said Lane has a history of alcoholism and was drinking heavily the night of May 17, 2002. They wanted to argue that Smith took advantage of Lane's blackout to coerce a false confession.

But Judge Trawick noted that the defense had raised similar issues in a pre-trial hearing last fall. It was ruled then that Lane's confession was voluntary and would be admitted at trial.

If jurors hear about a failed polygraph test, they might be more inclined to assume Lane is guilty, the judge said.

"That won't hurt him as much as not being able to explain the confession will," Barfield responded.

This might be an issue for the defense to raise on appeal, Trawick said.

District Attorney Branny Vickory had not planned to discuss the polygraph exam, he said. The N.C. Supreme Court has ruled those types of test results are inadmissible.

A prosecution witness mistakenly mentioned the polygraph exam a few hours later. Barwick had the jury leave the room and again warned the prosecution and defense against any more references to the tests.

The jury heard testimony Tuesday about how the Wayne County Sheriff's Office came to regard Lane as a suspect in the sexual assault and murder of the 5-year-old girl. It also learned more about the statements Lane gave SBI agent Smith and Detectives Mike Kabler and Shawn Harris of the Wayne County Sheriff's Office.

On the stand, Kabler recounted how he was called to investigate Precious' disappearance on the morning of Saturday, May 18, 2002. She had not been seen since the previous night, but family members mistakenly believed they needed to wait 24 hours before reporting a missing person.

Sheriff's officers began canvassing the neighborhood and tracked down several leads. One friend suggested Precious had gone to the beach with a neighboring family. Deputies also checked out a false lead that the girl's grandparents might have taken her to Fayetteville.

Kabler recalled that one of the first people he interviewed was Eric Lane.

Lane told the detective he had seen Precious with a neighborhood boy the previous afternoon, Kabler said. The children had played in Lane's yard, drank Pepsis and looked at eels and fish in tanks in Lane's home.

The detective said he had some initial misgivings about Lane, who was red-eyed and smelled of alcohol.

"His home was a whole lot cleaner than my residence. ... It just struck me as odd," he said.

Kabler looked through the house for Precious, during which he noticed a vacuum cleaner standing in the middle of the living rooms, an absence of dirty clothes in the laundry room, and a pile of wet paper towels in a trash can.

Kabler visited Lane again that day with Detective Shawn Harris, but Lane did not become a suspect until the next day when Precious' body was found under a bridge on Airport Road. Witnesses had seen a a man on a blue scooter, like Lane rode, atop the bridge on Friday.

Lane did not admit any role in the girl's death during an extensive interview with the sheriff's investigators on Sunday, May 19, 2002, Kabler said.

Jerry Best, then the head of the sheriff's office's investigations division, asked SBI Special Agent Smith to question Lane, and an interview was set up at the SBI's Greenville offices on Tuesday, May 21.

Lane continued to deny a role in the death for about 40-45 minutes in a one-on-one interview, Smith said. But after consulting with the county detectives, he changed tactics, asking if it was possible that he didn't remember the sexual assault.

"You were trying to get him to incriminate himself?" asked Richard McNeil, also representing Lane.

"I was trying to get him to tell the truth," Smith replied. "I was giving him an 'out.' ... Typically, it's easier to get a suspect to admit to sex rather than murder."

Lane gradually began to admit that Precious had returned to his home alone, hours after the first visit, to again see the eels and fish. He had been tickling her on the insides of her thighs when he blacked out, Smith said. Lane said he awoke to find himself lying on top of the girl's body.

He did not admit to either sexually assaulting or killing the girl, but he did describe how he disposed of her body, Smith said.