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COMPREHENSIVE COURT COVERAGE: Sheriff’s daughter convicted on four drug-related counts related to 2021 overdose death of Burlington man

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Jurors took less than an hour Tuesday afternoon to convict Emily Jean Robinson of four counts centered around felony death by distribution of Fentanyl, under a relatively new state law intended to combat the nation’s widespread opioid crisis.

Robinson, 43, white, female, of 7408 Bass Mountain Road, Snow Camp, is the daughter of Alamance County sheriff Terry Johnson.

She had been charged in September 2021 by the Burlington police department with allegedly supplying Fentanyl to Robert James Starner, Jr., then 29, white, male, who died of a drug overdose at his parents’ home at 415 South Anthony Street in Burlington on September 15, 2021.

The jurors returned after approximately 40 minutes.  The charges for which she was convicted Tuesday were: possession with intent to sell and deliver a controlled substance, specifically Fentanyl; maintaining a building for that purpose; possession of drug paraphernalia; and death by distribution of a controlled substance, Fentanyl.

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See separate story on the testimony and closing arguments: https://alamancenews.com/testimony-and-closing-arguments/


It appeared to be the first death by distribution case tried in Alamance County and resulting in a conviction under the law that the General Assembly passed in 2019 and toughened in 2023, Alamance County court officials told The Alamance News Tuesday.

Robinson was immediately sentenced to between 60 to 84 months in state prison, with credit for 276 days of time served, representing the amount of time she spent in treatment at the Living Free Ministries facility in Snow Camp, based on the sentencing range that the judge read aloud in court Tuesday afternoon.

Several jurors wept audibly, as did Robinson and her supporters, as the guilty verdicts were read aloud inside the courtroom at the Alamance County Historic Court House.  Starner’s family members, seated on the opposite side of the courtroom gallery, also sobbed.

After thanking jurors for their service and dismissing them from the courtroom, but prior to sentencing, the judge heard mitigating testimony about Robinson from her case worker at Living Free Ministries and testimony about aggravating factors from Starner’s father and sister.

Christie Doss, who along with her husband founded the residential treatment program Living Free Ministries in 2008, offered mitigating testimony prior to Robinson’s sentencing Tuesday afternoon.  She recalled that Robinson had been a resident in the program, which Doss said provides help for overcoming chemical dependency, self-harm, and other trauma, from September 23, 2021 until June 26, 2022.

Robinson “worked hard to complete her program in every respect, and that on November 27, 2022, she became an employee of Living Free Ministries, handling logistics and new residents’ intake, as well as transporting residents to appointments and working in the Living Free thrift store, Doss said.

In contrast to the prosecutors’ characterization, Doss described Robinson as an exemplary employee who passed every random drug test given during her treatment and subsequent employment.  “Obviously, Emily had a lot to overcome,” Doss told the judge, as she dissolved in tears, recalling the Robinson’s defense attorneys also portrayed Robinson as someone “who actually has a good heart,” adding that there was no indication from the evidence that she had ever had any contact with “these people” since completing substance abuse treatment.

Graham attorney George Hunt, one of Robinson’s two defense attorneys, pointed out prior to her sentencing that she had submitted herself to the treatment program “and continues to work up to this day, giving back to the community.”

In asking the judge to sentence Robinson at the top of the range, Coltrain, the prosecutor, insisted that Robinson needed to be held accountable for her actions that killed somebody. “In those prison calls, there was not one tear shed for the victim; there was a lot of laughter,” said Coltrain.

Starner’s father, Robert Starner, Sr., who goes by “Bobby,” offered testimony Tuesday afternoon about aggravating factors for consideration in sentencing Robinson.

“This stuff you pulled them through, you pulled him through – your parents are going to suffer,” a visibly emotional Bobby Starner told Robinson, still seated at the defense table with her attorneys.  “You’re leaving, but you get to come back,” he said, struggling to regain his composure.  “You didn’t have a right to take my son’s life.”

Motioning to Johnson, who was seated behind the defense table in the courtroom gallery, Bobby Starner said, “I’m sorry you’re going through this; I’m sorry that your daughter did you this way.”

Robinson’s trial was presided over by a special superior court judge, Edwin G. Wilson, Jr., who was appointed to the judgeship early last year by Gov. Roy Cooper.  The case was prosecuted by two attorneys form the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys, Lisa Marie Coltrain and Jordan Matthew Ford.

Wilson, however, took neither the prosecutor’s sentencing request nor testimony about mitigating and aggravating factors into account in calculating Robinson’s sentence.

After instructing Robinson to stand for sentencing, Wilson announced that he was sentencing her to 60 to 84 months in the custody of the Department of Corrections for the conviction of a Class C, Level 1 felony, death by distribution, with credit for time served.  The judge announced that he found no mitigating or aggravating factors.

Meanwhile, Hunt immediately gave notice of appeal after sentencing, telling the judge that the defense team had been deprived of its right to make an opening statement to the jury.

A provision within North Carolina’s rules of criminal procedure states that, in all non-capital superior court trials, both sides (the state and defense) “shall be allowed two addresses to the jury.”

Hunt initially introduced a motion for a mistrial after returning from the lunch break Tuesday afternoon, arguing to the judge that the deprivation of the defense’s right to make an opening statement at the outset of Robinson’s trial.  Hunt contended that the defense had not been allowed to make an opening argument to the jury, which he told the judge Tuesday afternoon had created a “fatal defect” that created substantial prejudice to the outcome of his client’s case.

A state Supreme Court precedent in 1986, in State v. Eury, established,” If defendant does not present evidence, she is entitled to both open and close the argument to the jury, and in such case she may have one lawyer make the opening argument and one the closing or she may waive one argument and have both lawyers address the jury during the remaining argument.”

Coltrain subsequently countered that the defense had an opportunity to rebut the state’s arguments.  “They both got to argue,” Coltrain said, referring to Hunt and his co-counsel, attorney Octavis White, Jr. of Graham.

Wilson, the special judge, read his findings on the motion for a mistrial aloud in open court: “Any possible error did not result in substantial prejudice to the defendant.”

Bailiffs led Robinson from the courtroom immediately after the conclusion of her trial Tuesday afternoon.

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