‘At a particular place at a particular time’

Opening statements in murder trial expected Thursday

By Kevin Spradlin

Previous coverage

Jury set in murder trial of Norman General Store owner
Prospective juror caught up in gambling ring
Race becomes an issue in jury selection
Defense works from “presumption of innocence”
Jury selection begins in murder trial

ROCKINGHAM — It seems as if defense attorneys Frank Wells and Stephen Freedman will concede that their client, Alexander Ingram, was inside the Norman General Store the night of Nov. 26, 2012.

That’s the same night store owner Michael Leverne Collins Sr. was beaten to death with a hammer. The defense also will concede that Ingram, one of two men charged in Collins’ death, was inside the store after Collins was beaten to death with a hammer.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Alexander Ingram, a defendant on trial for the murder of former Norman General Store owner Michael Leverne Collins Sr., flips through the book "A Call for Character."

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Alexander Ingram, a defendant on trial for the murder of former Norman General Store owner Michael Leverne Collins Sr., flips through the book “A Call for Character.”

They likely have no choice, because as Wells explained to potential jurors and prospective alternate jurors through Wednesday afternoon, forensic experts from the State Bureau of Investigation will testify that matter appearing to be blood on the tip of at least one of Ingram’s shoes had on it DNA that belonged to Collins.

What Wells wanted to know of prospective jurors is whether or not that fact alone would in their eyes make Ingram guilty. There was a legal principle at play; Wells drove home the point that just because someone is present when a crime is committed doesn’t make that person guilty of the crime.

All the while, Ingram paid little attention. His eyes darted back and forth from the proceedings to a book, “A Call for Character.” There, author Greg Zoschak explains that “a godly disposition can only be accomplished by developing the same fruits that were easily recognized in Jesus’ life.”

On Tuesday at 9:30 a.m., the second pool of 50 potential jurors will begin watching an orientation video. Court is scheduled to convene at 11 a.m.

Alternate jurors needed

At 12:41 p.m., Richmond County Superior Court Judge Richard T. Brown recessed court somewhat confident that the time for opening statements were quite near; after seven and one-half hours of questioning potential jurors since Monday afternoon, only three alternates were needed to begin the trial.

As the court reconvened Wednesday afternoon at 2:25 p.m., the first of five attempts to fill the first of three alternate jurors’ seats began. And while the wheels of justice might seem to spin fast at various times, the brakes were applied liberally in Courtroom E on the third floor of the Richmond County Judicial Center.

The goal is to get a total of 15 people who can evaluate the evidence presented in court in a fair and impartial manner. That’s easier said than done.

A jury of seven men and five women had been established, and now the first possible alternate took her seat to be questioned by Assistant District Attorney Dawn Layton and, in turn, Wells.

This first candidate, a Rockingham native with two daughters, left 12 more potential jurors in two pews as she walked to take her place. The woman said she enjoyed “Castle” and “Jeopardy” on television. She also knew Layton.

“I graduated (school) with your husband,” the woman said. “My son-in-law’s brother married your …”

The woman also experienced the personal tragedy of her brother-in-law being killed in Scotland County a number of years ago. Yes, she told Layton, she attended the trial.

Prospective Alternate No. 1 (b) was a young black man. Lives in Hamlet. Unemployed and attends Richmond Community College. Single, no children and he doesn’t watch television. But he was familiar with the defendant, Alexander Ingram.

Layton: From where?

Man: When we were locked up.

As it turns out, the man was accused of an assault in the same week that Collins was killed. Ingram and his nephew, Henry Thomas “Pete” Ingram, of Candor — who is being tried separately — were arrested in short order. Alexander Ingram and the potential alternate juror spend some time in jail together.

But the young man also was charged in three other incidents, including injury to personal property, driving an ATV on a public roadway and a fourth time, while attending Hoke County High School, of using “bad language” towards a teacher that, the man said, “turned into a failure to appear.”

The man was dismissed, and a third Alternate No. 1 candidate was brought forward. The Hamlet woman is involved in a prominent family-owned business and knows many members of the law enforcement community. Plus, it’s the end of the fiscal year for her family’s business and she’s the only bookkeeper the company has.

Plus, the woman said, the idea of looking at photos of the crime scene wasn’t appealing.

“I have a very weak stomach,” the woman said.

The woman said when she and her husband took her children to the emergency room at the local hospital, he’d go in with the child.

“I sit in the waiting room,” she said. “I do not like to see the sigh of blood. I could look at (the photos), but I would be very lightheaded and very nauseated.”

Layton said she understood that no one wanted to look at the photos. The question was, could she, and also remain fair and impartial?

Due to the burden it would place on her and the family business, the woman was released.

Candidat No. 4 stepped up. The man, white, seemed like a prime candidate to be on the jury panel. The Rockingham man retired from the railroad after more than 38 years. Married with two adult kids, his favorite TV shows or channels are MSNBC, the public education channel and most anything on Netflix.

There was a hitch. A member of the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office involved with the investigation and who could be called to testify in the case was a neighbor. But neither defense attorney inquired about the man’s relationship with the law enforcement officer.

Instead, Wells asked about his former job — “it’s not that great” — and why he went into that field, to which he replied, “In 1969 in Richmond County, it just paid more than anything else and that’s what I wanted.”

There was, the man said to a direct question, no apparent reason he shouldn’t serve on the jury. And within seconds after that, the man was summarily dismissed without explanation.

Candidat No. 5, a black woman, has lived in Rockingham more nearly 25 years. There was a problem with her candidacy, though — she knows the Ingram family. The woman said she was born in Montgomery County.

The nursing director said it’d been nearly 30 years since she had anything to do with the Ingram family. She said the wife of the victim “looked familiar” and that an uncle of hers had been killed in northern Virginia when she was in junior high school.

The defense wanted to know more. After an afternoon recess, the woman was brought in to be questioned without the presence of the other prospective or regular jurors. Privately — that is, in front of the judge, Layton, two key investigators on the case, two defense attorneys, Ingram, the media and four people there to support Ingram — the woman told Wells that Ingram had dated her mother’s best friend. This was, she said, when she was 7 or 8 years old — more than a few years ago, she said.

She also knew at least one of Ingram’s children, a daughter, from school, and a brother.

“If I saw him, I would recognize him,” she said of Carl Ingram. She also knew Barbara Ingram, and though her relationship to the defendant wasn’t specified, the woman noted she and Barbara Ingram were not friends.

The woman then discussed with Wells the murder of her uncle. She was in the seventh grade at the time, she said, but her experience or memories wouldn’t hamper her ability to be fair or impartial.

“I can empathize with both families,” she said. “With 18 years of nursing experience … I’m used to separating my emotions” from the task at hand.

After interviewing five candidates, attorneys finally had their alternate — the first of three.

The first candidate for Alternate No. 2 didn’t fare much better than a few of his predecessors. The male, white, lives in the Hamlet area and has lived in Richmond County for nearly 40 years. And attorneys from neither side seem fazed when he admitted he’d been in jail once, arrested on a felony charge that was later reduced to a misdemeanor.

What they couldn’t let go of, however, was his claim that inhaling fumes from welding affected his ability to pay attention.

“I can’t focus a lot of time,” the man said. “I could focus for an hour, or five minutes.”

“It’ll getcha,” he said being a welder, which he’s been since a young teenager.

The next candidate was a Hoffman woman with a pleasant disposition. And her husband was also in the pool of potential jurors, one of the four remaining in the pews yet to be called.

“Well, you’ve got a ride  here everyday,” Layton quipped.

Unfortunately for the woman and the court, her husband’s family had some skeletons. Within the past five years, she told the court, three of her husband’s cousins had been charged with murder in three different incidents, all here in Richmond County.

Attorneys were into this third attempt for a second alternate before they decided to call it a day. With only four potential jurors remaining — and one of them the husband of the woman still being questioned — it was time to call in the reinforcements.

* * * 

After two full days in Courtroom E and nearly all of a third, a bailiff ordered two members of the media to the third row of pews behind the defense table. The first two rows were for family members of the defendant, the bailiff said — all four of them. Two women had sat in the first row with one journalist on Monday, Tuesday and all of Wednesday and two others, a man and a woman, had shared the second row with another journalist.

A reason for the new order was not given.

Filed in: Ellerbe/Norman, Featured News, Latest Headlines, News, Public safety

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