Jurors said they had deadlocked Tuesday after a second day of deliberations in the Kareem Lane murder trial, casting an air of uncertainty over proceedings that prosecutors hoped would resolve the 1992 fatal stabbing of Muscogee County School District Superintendent Jim Burns. Superior Court Judge Bobby Peters dismissed the divided panel after 5 p.m. but asked jurors to return at 9 a.m. today to continue deliberating.
"We respectfully ask you to please go back in the jury room and consider the feelings and thoughts of your other jurors and try to reach a unanimous verdict either way. It's very important," said Peters, who has not divulged the current jury vote. "A mistrial means we have to possibly re-try this case. I know it seems to y'all you've been in there a good while -- and you have. But compared to the length of the trial, please keep trying, either way."
"We'll try," responded one female juror seated on the front row nearest Peters, who on Monday also spoke on behalf of the jury.
The jury remained deadlocked Wednesday afternoon. Peters said he planned to check in with the panel again about 4:30 p.m. to see if the vote had changed.
Deliberations began Monday morning after eight days of testimony in which Lane, 37, was alternatively portrayed as a calculated killer and the victim of wrongful arrest. As a 17-year-old high school student, Lane was questioned by police the night of the stabbing after witnesses said they saw his pickup near Burns' home in the Historic District. But the Shaw High School student was released without being charged, even though authorities thought his behavior suspicious and recovered an empty knife sheath from his pickup that prosecutors now say fits the murder weapon.
Lane, a former Marine who moved to Pell City, Ala., was charged with murder in 2010 after authorities claimed they linked his DNA to skin cells found on the murder weapon amid a cold-case investigation. The defense has attacked that forensic testing as being inconclusive, and the state's own experts said the results did not definitively implicate Lane.
A mixed DNA profile drawn from the knife didn't exclude Lane as a possible contributor, but testing also revealed that an unknown person apparently handled the knife at some point. While the forensic testing wasn't the strongest part of the state's circumstantial case, it took center stage for several days as prosecutors requested and presented new DNA tests that excluded Burns' widow, Stella Burns Butler, from having contributed to the sample on the knife.
Defense attorney Stacey Jackson has sharply criticized the police investigation of Burns' death, saying authorities failed to rule out other plausible suspects and stubbornly tried to make a case fit around Lane instead of searching for the true killer. Lane declined to testify in his own defense and his attorney called just one witness, a DNA expert who underlined the uncertainty of the mixed DNA profile. Prosecutors stood by their case, characterizing the evidence as "overwhelming" and saying they have "no doubt" as to Lane's guilt. Jurors have asked a number of questions of Peters through notes, but it's not clear which direction they're leaning. The jury inquired Monday about what had changed in the case between 1992 and 2010. On Tuesday, Peters read aloud for jurors a typed statement that Lane signed in the Columbus Police Department after an interview with Detective Karen Gaskins.
Lane said in the interview he worked at Hardee's until about 10:30 p.m. on Oct. 18, 1992, changed clothes in the parking lot, drove to the L&J game lounge on Victory Drive where he listened to the radio in his pickup and then headed toward his east Columbus home. Burns lived on Broadway, but Lane, a Stone Mountain, Ga., native, denied even knowing where that street was.
Burns was stabbed in his bedroom after midnight. Butler said she saw her husband chasing after a shadowy attacker before he collapsed and died in the front doorway. Prosecutors said they found it suspicious that no one at the game lounge could verify having seen Lane that night.
They also found it odd that Lane was sweating despite cool temperatures when police pulled him over on Macon Road shortly after the stabbing, and that he never asked to call his parents from the police department even though it was a school night.
The witnesses who identified Lane's pickup parked the wrong way on a one-way stretch of Front Avenue said they recognized a light decal on the back window of the vehicle, but they couldn't identify Lane.
Jackson noted that prosecutors failed to show a motive on the part of his client, even though Burns was a controversial leader of the school district.
Peters could declare a mistrial if jurors determine a consensus isn't within reach. It's not clear whether the prosecution would try Lane again in the event of a hung jury.