Lawyers deliver final arguments to Joyner trial jury
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on March 28, 2014 1:46 PM
Assistant District Attorney Matthew Delbridge removed his glasses and took a deep breath.
It had only been a few moments since defense attorney Charles Gurley concluded his closing argument with an emotional reading of a quote about liberty and justice -- words first delivered, more than 50 years ago, by President John F. Kennedy.
"I don't want to quote Kennedy," Delbridge said, holding, in front of the jury box, an over-sized photo of the site where a team of investigators unearthed the remains a 16-year-old back in September 2012. "I want to show you Kennedy."
Both the state and defense made their final pitches Thursday to the Wayne County jury charged with determining the innocence or guilt of Leonard Eugene Joyner, one of four men implicated in the alleged Sept. 9, 2012, kidnapping and murder of Kennedy McLaurin Jr.
But Delbridge's final words were not the only emotionally charged ones spoken inside Courtroom No. 1 on Thursday.
The assistant DA opened his first plea to the jury -- Delbridge was given a chance to offer a second argument, a rebuttal, after Gurley spoke -- by proclaiming, "You don't need to beat a man with a shovel if he's already dead."
And that fact -- the fact that McLaurin was "still alive" when the car he was allegedly abducted in arrived in a field off Carmack Road -- is why, he said, Joyner and the three men who have already entered guilty pleas for their admitted roles in the incident, are murderers.
He spent nearly an hour going back over his case -- how a missing persons report turned into a homicide investigation when a person of interest's alibi "blew up," how the man Joyner said he was with came clean to investigators and gave them another name.
"We're getting closer. At least there's hope," Delbridge said. "But that hope is dashed. It's dashed when Det. (Dwayne) Bevell goes to Leonard Joyner. He says, 'Can you help us? Were you in the car? Please tell us what happened so we can find the boy's body and give it back to his mama.'
"Leonard Joyner said, 'No. I wasn't there. I was not there. ... I didn't go up there. ... I swear I wasn't there. I'm telling you the truth. I swear I wasn't there. Look how sincere I am.'"
Delbridge paused and removed his glasses.
"Sometimes people get gone, and they aren't never found," he continued. "And maybe that would have happened, but for Josh Carter -- that slimy, little tattooed person who came in here talking about finding a place to move the body. That Josh Carter -- the one who's not gonna get charged with anything. And you know why? Because if it wasn't for him, we might not be here. He was the one who got scared."
And he, Delbridge said, is the one who led investigators to Jerome Butts.
"When (Butts) came home and the helicopter was overhead ... and the crime scene van was parked up there ... and Bevell said, 'It's over,' it was over. He didn't know what they knew, but he knew enough to know they knew he was in the middle of it and he gave it up," Delbridge said. "The very inception of this case ... was that first interview with Jerome Butts. In the first statement, what do we know? We know that Kennedy was alive when he left Hickory Hills. That's the first thing we know that hasn't been tainted by anyone else. It hasn't been tainted by any promises. It hasn't been tainted by any threats. He was 'talking (expletive).' He was 'still talking (expletive).'"
He then told the jurors that he knew there was "risk" involved in putting Carter, Butts, Curtis Ethridge and Kevin Smith on the stand -- that they all had something to gain by testifying, that "nobody has told the same story the same way."
"Let's solve that problem. Let's solve the problem of all these different statements. You could spend two weeks comparing notes and saying, 'This doesn't match up. He said this, he said that,'" Delbridge said. "Does it matter? Let me tell you how we solve that. We use our reason and common sense and an understanding of human nature. OK? That's how we're gonna do it.
"What is human nature? Human nature is, you lie to protect yourself ... but you won't tell something that's not true to hurt yourself. Would you? If y'all don't believe that, I might as well sit down, because I'm done. That's what all I'm gonna say is based on."
He said they should "throw out" everything in the other suspects' statements that "points the finger at someone else."
"Throw it out. Can't believe it. The only thing we accept as true is what they admit they did that was bad, because we know that's gotta be the truth. ... That's our core set of facts," Delbridge said. "You can point your finger at Leonard Joyner or anybody else and I'm not gonna believe it. I'm not gonna believe it. But if you admit that you hit somebody in the head with a shovel while they're sitting up in a grave, I'll believe that. I'll believe that. Because who would say that if it wasn't true?"
Both Ethridge and Butts, he said, admitted that McLaurin was still alive when the car arrived at the "first burial site."
And Smith told the court he finished the young man off -- that he beat him to death with a shovel after he had been removed, by force, from the car.
"I got in the car with a shovel and the boy alive -- talking (expletive). And he was sitting up in the grave, so I took a shovel and whacked him in the head," Delbridge said. "Is that good or bad? Why would he say that if it wasn't true. Mr. Gurley can't say he said it to save himself. Save himself from what? From what?
"You can't kill somebody who's dead. You can't kidnap somebody who's dead. ... Why would they say he was alive when he was dead? What did they have to gain from that? That's not human nature. That's crazy. It's insanity."
Gurley, though, said the fact that Ethridge, Butts and Smith received reduced charges in exchange for their testimony -- they pleaded guilty to second-degree murder earlier this year -- is enough to cast reasonable doubt about whether or not what they said in court was true.
He likened Delbridge to a movie director and said the state's case was a "magic show."
"Everybody watches movies, correct? I'm gonna throw some names out there. Steven Spielberg. George Lucas -- you know, the 'Star Wars' guy. ... What they do is they try to tell you a story and they do it the way they want," he said. "Mr. Delbridge and I are both lawyers. I work for people and he chose to work for the state of North Carolina. He directs the evidence. He calls witnesses. ... He calls for the evidence he wants you to hear.
"The director of the evidence can show what pictures he wants to and tell you the story he wants. Don't give him an Oscar here."
Gurley said the McLaurin case has never been about murder.
"If I point a gun at you and I'm gonna kill you, what are you gonna do? What are you gonna do? Tell me what you're gonna do," Gurley said, shaping his hand like a gun and pointing it at several jurors. "My goodness gracious, an armed robbery was committed, for God's sake. A boy pointed a gun at these people and tried to kill 'em. I didn't make that up. Do you think that (Joyner) wanted to go to this street to make the live or die decision that day? Really? Really?"
He claimed that despite what the others said during what he characterized as coerced testimony, McLaurin suffered two gunshot wounds -- one of them to the heart -- long before his client drove to Hickory Hills.
"He had a hole this big ... in his heart," Gurley said, holding up the 9 mm bullet the medical examiner removed from McLaurin's aorta during the autopsy. "If you put a quarter-inch hole (in the heart) how long is it gonna take for it to run out? Do you want to add the fact that it's pumping it out?
"That boy wasn't alive. It doesn't matter how many magic tricks Mr. Delbridge tries and how he tries to play with your imagination. He can't make that boy alive and have murder, he needs that boy alive. But he can't prove it. You can't change that bullet puttin' a four-inch hole in that young man's heart and that blood leakin'. I don't care who you are or what kind of guru you get or how you want to phrase this. ... It is what it is."
He also told the jury that any loss of life is a "tragedy," but that McLaurin was not a victim.
"He's not a victim. He was a robber that died because he tried to rob somebody that defended himself," Gurley said. "This case has never been anything but a self-defense case. (Joyner) didn't want to die. He didn't want to get shot."
Delbridge would ultimately get the final word.
But when he held up that picture of the gravesite -- telling the jury he didn't want to quote Kennedy, but show them Kennedy -- he wasn't finished.
Instead, he sent them into their deliberation with a final question to ponder -- a question he asked over and over again.
"Is that self-defense?" he asked, holding up an autopsy photograph that revealed fractures on McLaurin's skull.
"Is this self-defense?" he said again, holding up another shot of the boy's skeletal remains. "Is it? Is it?"