Jurors heard spirited closing arguments Friday as Kareem Lane's murder trial drew to a close, going their separate ways for the weekend to mull two weeks of testimony and competing accounts of a circumstantial cold case fraught with unanswered questions.
Lane, 37, faces a life sentence if convicted in the fatal stabbing of Jim Burns, the Muscogee County School District superintendent whose 1992 death ranks among the most puzzling in the annals of Columbus crime sagas. A jury of six men and six women is to begin deliberations Monday.
District Attorney Julia Slater touted the state's "overwhelming evidence" and pieced together a series of circumstances she said are too incriminating to be coincidental.
"The state has no doubt in this," Slater said, "and we are asking for a guilty verdict on all counts in this case."
Defense attorney Stacey Jackson blasted authorities for what he said was the wrongful arrest of Lane, claiming the only thing that changed since police questioned and released Lane in 1992 was inconclusive forensic testing that raised more questions than it answered.
"There is no proof whatsoever that Kareem Lane had anything to do with the death of Dr. Burns," Jackson said, describing the prosecution's exhibits and presentations as a superficial effort to disguise glaring weaknesses in its case. "If you put shoes on it, spray it with perfume, put a tie on it, it's still a pig."
Jackson said no witnesses tied Lane to the scene. He tried to cast doubt on the testimony of two residents who claimed they saw Lane's pickup -- or one just like it with the same white decal on the back window -- around the corner from Burns' 620 Broadway house. According to Jackson, authorities failed to exclude other suspects who knew the Burnses and had more motive than a 17-year-old high school student who worked at Hardee's.
Slater acknowledged that it may never be known why Burns was killed because the superintendent is dead and Lane isn't talking, an allusion to the defendant's decision Friday not to testify in his own defense.
"I don't ever want to understand what makes people kill each other," Slater said. "If I ever get to a point where I can explain to others why someone would kill someone else and take someone else's life, I don't want to do this any more."
Slater told jurors there doesn't have to be "one magic fact that does it for you." Using a Venn diagram, she asked the panel to consider the odds of someone other than the murderer driving a pickup that fit the description of the suspiciously parked vehicle on Front Avenue; being pulled over between his home and Burns' after the stabbing; being a possible contributor to DNA found on the knife that killed Burns; and having an empty sheath in his pickup that happens to fit the murder weapon.
"Who drives around with an empty sheath in their truck?" the district attorney asked. Slater also contends Lane's shoes fit a print left at the scene, a determination prosecutors have said they will leave to the jury.
"When you look at all of that together, what are the odds that it could be anybody except Kareem Lane?" Slater asked the jury. "There's no way that that many things could coincide and him not be the perpetrator."
Becoming indignant at times, Jackson criticized the police and prosecutors for what he called "improper investigation techniques," saying too many pieces of evidence remained untested. Jackson asked how his client would know exactly which room to enter in the home to find Burns and how he could make it up the stairs in the dark without waking anyone or knocking over furniture. Prosecutors noted Lane was found to have a small flashlight in his pocket when he was pulled over.
Jackson also pointed to a house key left under the front door mat by Burns' widow, Stella Burns Butler, and reminded jurors of his client's cooperation with detectives once he was in police custody. He faulted investigators for failing to audiotape his client's statement, saying the "essence" of Lane's exchanges with police had been lost.
Jackson said prosecutors became desperate in their effort to convict Lane, pointing to testimony that berries found in the bed of Lane's pickup may have came from the Chinese tallows in front a residence on Front Avenue where his vehicle was allegedly spotted about the time of the stabbing.
"When you don't have a case, that's when you come up with some crap like that," Jackson said. "When you don't have anything, you have to create something."
Jackson questioned the prosecution for calling last-minute witnesses and introducing new evidence late in the trial.
"It seems to me, here we are in the middle of the trial, and even in the second week of trial they're still investigating," he said.
One of those witnesses, Nancy Boren, the former assistant coroner, did not appear on the witness list and was not asked to testify in the case until Thursday. Boren was asked Friday to clear up a question mark about an unidentified pair of eyeglasses photographed under Burns' body at the crime scene.
Boren, currently the Muscogee County elections director, said then-Coroner Don Kilgore, who has since died, complained his eyeglasses fell out of his pocket while he was investigating Burns' death.
"We did what justice requires," said prosecutor LaRae Dixon Moore, defending the state's decision to amend its case to rebut the defense, Prosecutors ordered new DNA testing this week that excluded Butler from having contributed to the mixed profile on the knife, though a "mystery" contributor still remains.
Jackson invoked race in his closing argument while calling into question Butler's claim she saw a young black man in a jogging suit walking down Broadway about 4 a.m. a few days before the stabbing. Butler said the man appeared to turn toward her home before noticing her on the swing and continuing on his way -- but the encounter isn't found in police records.
"You mean to tell me that a young black man is going to be walking down the street at 4:30, 5 o'clock in the morning and nobody calls the police?" Jackson said, asking jurors to consider the "socioeconomics" of the neighborhood. "It's 3:30 in the afternoon, and if I'm walking down in Green Island Hills right now with a jogging suit on and I don't live there, believe me, in 20 minutes the police are going to be right there."