Mistrial declared in Kareem Lane murder trial after 10-2 deadlock

jmustian@ledger-enquirer.comSeptember 19, 2012 

The Kareem Lane murder trial ended without a verdict Wednesday as the jury, which largely rejected the state's case, failed to come to a consensus after three full days of deliberations. Ten jurors voted to acquit Lane, while two maintained he was guilty of fatally stabbing former Muscogee County School District Superintendent Jim Burns in 1992, prompting Superior Court Judge Bobby Peters to declare a mistrial.

Prosecutors seemed crestfallen by the margin of jurors who voted against them, and said they hadn't decided whether to retry the circumstantial case.

"We feel like we put our best foot forward," said Assistant District Attorney LaRae Dixon Moore, who was assisted by District Attorney Julia Slater and two other prosecutors. Moore said the lack of a verdict showed that "reasonable minds can differ as to the guilt or innocence of the accused."

"You had two people who firmly believed in his guilt and you had 10 who firmly believed in his innocence. Again, that just leaves the issue unresolved."

Defense attorney Stacey Jackson, a former prosecutor who accused Columbus police of botching the investigation into Burns' death, said "it would cause me some concern trying a case again where 10 people have said he didn't do it."

"Legally, it's a tie," Jackson said. "But you could consider it as a cautionary victory from the standpoint that … you would think that the state gave it their best shot, and did everything they could to prove he did it and 10 people said, 'No.'

"From a strategic standpoint," he added, "we've had a dry run, so to speak, so if the case were to be tried again, we know what's coming."

Jackson quickly began negotiating for a reduced bond he believes Lane deserves after spending more than two years behind bars awaiting trial. In chambers, he argued it should be reduced from $750,000 to a recognizance bond with a leg monitor. Peters is expected to decide on an amount some time today.

Moore said prosecutors aren't opposing a reduction. "Whether or not we agree on the amount is the issue," she said.

Two jurors who spoke with the Ledger-Enquirer Wednesday evening said the panel was largely unpersuaded by the state's circumstantial evidence, and found that too many questions remained unanswered.

"I voted the way I did because the DA did not give us enough substantial evidence. The DA did not prove their case to me," said juror Bernice Peterson, one of six women on the diverse jury. "We all were sad about it. We all took this emotionally for the Burns family and Kareem Lane."

Another juror who spoke to the newspaper on the condition of anonymity was skeptical of Lane's decision not to testify and impressed by Slater's closing argument Friday afternoon, in which she stated that prosecutors had presented "overwhelming" evidence. But this juror couldn't see what would motivate Lane to commit the murder, and said the state's DNA evidence was too inconclusive.

"There were a lot of things that led to him being guilty, but there was no hard physical evidence," the juror said.

The juror explained that there were never more than two votes in favor of a guilty verdict. The first poll, taken Monday afternoon on the first day of deliberations, revealed six votes in favor of an acquittal and four undecided who later switched to not guilty.

The holdouts for guilty "basically told us that, 'I want you to dissuade me,' and I guess we weren't able to do that," the juror added. "It got emotional. There were a few points where it got a little bit combative, but overall there was probably pretty good respect."

Burns was fatally stabbed about midnight Oct. 19, 1992, in the bedroom of his Victorian-style home on Broadway, just hours after he returned from a trip with his wife and parents to their North Carolina mountain home. The killing came amid turmoil between Burns and the school district, leading many to speculate that Burns had been the victim of a contract killer.

Lane became a suspect in the case almost immediately after he was pulled over driving a pickup fitting the description of a vehicle parked suspiciously around the corner from the Burnses about the time of the stabbing. The juror who asked to remain unnamed said some of the state's most persuasive evidence had been the testimony of two witnesses who claim they saw the pickup and a masked man jogging toward it, along with the empty knife sheath police found in Lane's pickup.

The police did not charge Lane, who was a 17-year-old high school student at the time of the stabbing, until May 2010 after they claimed to have "matched" his DNA to skin cells found on the knife used to kill Burns. Police who interviewed Lane the night of the stabbing said he behaved suspiciously by sweating in cool temperatures and not asking to call his parents to inform them of his prolonged stay in investigative detention.

But the forensic testing proved to be inconclusive as even the state's experts said it didn't implicate Lane. It only showed he couldn't be excluded as a possible contributor, and the jury did not assign much weight to the testimony.

While they touted the DNA at the time of Lane's arrest, authorities have since sought to downplay its significance. "Our position the entire time was that there was certainly sufficient evidence for him to have been arrested back in 1992," said Moore, who in her opening statement had also referred to police missteps in the case. "We never felt like this case was solely a DNA case."

Moore said she couldn't think of anything prosecutors would have done differently.

Burns' family members, including his widow, Stella Burns Butler, attended each day of the proceedings. They issued a statement to the media saying they were "very disappointed with the jury results.

"However, we want to thank the Columbus Police Department and District Attorney Julia Slater for having the courage to see that this case got its day in court. Ms. Slater's team worked diligently and professionally throughout."

Butler, whose second husband died during the trial, gave perhaps the most emotional testimony of the trial in recounting the day a shadowy attacker came into her house and stabbed her husband.

The mistrial and the margin of the jury divide amounted to a partial vindication for Lane's supporters. Jay Worrall, a friend of Lane's who attended nearly every day of the trial, was pleased that "most of the jury recognized the absurdity of the state's case."

"While we know that Kareem is not the killer, we hope that some day they will recognize that convicting the wrong man of this terrible crime would not have given (the Burns family) the peace they deserve," he wrote in an email. "We hope that we will be able to say that Kareem is a free man again very, very soon, and we can finally bring him home."

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