Eric Lane gets death penalty
By Jack Stephens
Published in News on July 12, 2005 1:45 PM
Eric Glenn Lane, who murdered 5-year-old Precious Ebony Whitfield more than three years ago, will pay for the crime with his life.
A Wayne County Superior Court jury of 10 women and two men needed only 50 minutes to agree on the death penalty for the 33-year-old electrician.
The jury began deliberations at 3:53 p.m. Court convened at 9:30 a.m., but legal issues and arguments took up most of the morning and some of the afternoon.
Lane showed no emotion when the punishment was announced. In fact, he had ordered his lawyers not to put on a defense during the penalty phase and told the court months ago that he "wanted to get it over with."
"He just gave up," said Latisha Whitfield, the stepmother of Precious' mother.
"He had good lawyers," added John Whitfield, the little girl's grandfather.
Lane was convicted Friday of first-degree murder of the little girl on May 17, 2002.
After Judge Gary Trawick of Burgaw polled the jury, he sentenced Lane to 336 to 413 months for first-degree child rape, 336 to 413 months for a first-degree sexual offense, 116 to 149 months for first-degree kidnapping and 21 to 35 months for indecent liberties with a child.
Then Trawick imposed the death sentence and told Lane, "May God have mercy on your soul."
Lane was handcuffed by Sheriff Carey Winders and led to a waiting car for a ride to Central Prison in Raleigh. He was accompanied by the sheriff, Maj. Ray Smith and Capt. George Raecher, one of the lead investigators in the case.
"I'm happy," said Michelle Whitfield, Precious' mother.
John and Latisha Whitfield offered brief condolences to Lane's father and stepmother, Pete and Joan Lane, as they left the courtroom.
Trawick ordered the state Appellate Defenders' Office to handle an automatic appeal of the verdict.
District Attorney Branny Vickory thanked the jury for its decision and the court for its handling of the trial.
In his closing argument, Vickory said the aggravating circumstances -- a premeditated murder committed during a rape, sexual offense and kidnapping and an especially heinous, atrocious and cruel murder -- clearly outweighed the mitigating factors, including Lane's learning disability.
Vickory said Lane "deserves the ultimate punishment for the violent manner in which he violated a 5-year-old child."
Lane's former wife, Jennie Blizzard, also testified without the jury present about his abduction of her as she delivered the News-Argus in 1998. Lane was sentenced to 15 days in jail for felonious restraint, put on supervised probation for 36 months and fined $500. Trawick would not allow Ms. Blizzard to testify about certain evidence, and Vickory did not call her to the stand before the jury.
The jury left without comment, but the two alternates said they were glad that the trial was over.
The jury's decision ended one of the most unusual cases in Wayne County.
The original trial started Oct. 11, 2004, but was stopped Nov. 9 during the selection of alternate jurors because of juror misconduct. A prospective juror had commented in the jury pool room about what punishment Lane should receive. The last two seated jurors and a prospective alternate admitted that they had heard portions of the comments. The juror who made the comments was charged with indirect contempt of court for violating a judge's order not to discuss the case. He was fined $500.
Because of the comments and an insufficient number of replacement jurors, Judge D. Jack Hooks Jr. of Whiteville declared a mistrial.
Then Lane said he wanted to fire his court-appointed lawyers, Edwin L. West III of Wilmington and Richard McNeil of Jacksonville. He had made the same request before the original trial but changed his mind. This time, the eighth-grade dropout was declared competent by mental-health professionals, and he was allowed to represent himself.
Before the trial resumed May 23, Glenn Barfield of Goldsboro and McNeil were appointed as standby lawyers.
Twelve jurors again were seated to hear the case, but Lane's motion to remove the panel was allowed. Lane said the random jury selection process had been compromised because the state and defense knew which prospective jurors would be called to the box. Judge Trawick agreed.
When another jury pool was summoned, Lane said he wanted Barfield and McNeil to represent him. Jury selection started June 6 and was completed June 17.
Once the trial started June 20, it took more twists and turns. On June 21, a juror asked a question about where evidence was found along a roadside. A veteran investigator said that was the first time he had seen a juror ask a question.
When the jurors, all wearing their juror badges, came back from lunch later that day, one reported that someone had spoken to her while they waited in line at a downtown sandwich shop. The juror said the citizen said that the panelists must be on the Lane trial and that they "should do the right thing." Trawick said that kind of conduct could cause a mistrial.
The next day's testimony was delayed until after lunch while the defense and state argued in the judge's chambers over a piece of evidence.
Two days later the juror who had asked the question did not show up for court. Deputies were dispatched but could not find him. After a 90-minute delay, the trial resumed with the first alternate in his place.
The state had begun its case, using a combination of testimony from eyewitnesses, law-enforcement investigators and scientific experts.
Five witnesses put an unidentified man near the Airport Road bridge over Nahunta Creek about an hour after Precious was seen last at Lane's home on Brandywine Drive in the Patetown community. Her body was found two days later alongside the creek at the bridge.
An expert from the State Bureau of Investigation testified that duct tape found on a blue tarpaulin and a white trash bag that held the body matched a roll of tape that was found in Lane's home. He also said the tarp and trash bag were similar to those found in Lane's home.
A defense expert scoffed at the claims and said the state could have shown the match of the tape with photographs but did not.
The SBI expert also said about a dozen hairs were found in a vacuum at Lane's home.
The prosecutors, Vickory and Assistant District Attorney Terry Light, contended that the physical evidence was capped by Lane's confession that he had awakened on top of the girl and then had taken the body to the bridge.
The defense argued that Lane, who drank large quantities of alcohol, had blacked out and someone else had committed the crimes. But the state discounted that theory, because the prosecutors said telephone records showed that Lane had talked on the phone to his father at 8:32 p.m., about two hours after the girl had disappeared.
When the state finished its case last week, Barfield and McNeil put on a brief defense. The jury needed about three hours over two days to find Lane guilty on all charges.
"I'm proud of what the jury did," Sheriff Winders said. "They had a hard task and made the right decision. I'm proud of the D.A.'s staff and the Sheriff's Office staff. ... Before this sentence is carried out, many officers who put the case together will be retired, and some will pass on by the time his sentence is completed."
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