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Testimony and closing arguments: markedly different interpretations

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Prosecution: defendant was a cold-hearted ‘merchant of death’

Defense: who can be certain which drug(s) killed victim?

After a six-day trial, it took jurors approximately 40 minutes to conclude that Alamance County sheriff Terry Johnson’s daughter, Emily Jean Robinson, was guilty of supplying the Fentanyl that caused the fatal overdose of a Burlington man in 2021.


See more information on the case, verdict, and sentencing: https://alamancenews.com/breaking-tues-p-m-sheriffs-daughter-convicted-on-four-drug-related-counts-related-to-2021-overdose-death-of-burlington-man/


Jurors selected to hear the death by distribution case against Robinson, 43, white, female, of Snow Camp, heard a dramatic closing argument Tuesday by one of the prosecutors for the state, Lisa Marie Coltrain of the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys, as well as by Robinson’s defense team, attorneys George Hunt and Octavis White, Jr. of Graham.

Robinson had pleaded not guilty on each of the four felony drug charges of which she was subsequently found guilty Tuesday afternoon in the superior courtroom within Alamance County’s Historic Court House (see related story, this edition).

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Coltrain warned jurors Tuesday afternoon that the defense attorneys would try to distract them from the facts of the case by focusing on some other “shiny thing” – and would try to make them feel sorry for her, because Robinson was an addict herself.

“When a lawyer doesn’t want you to focus on this mountain of evidence – dozens and dozens of text messages – they show you this little shiny thing…look over here,” Coltrain told jurors, describing that tactic as a trick of the legal profession and a red herring.

Defendant is a cold-hearted “merchant of death”

Prosecutor Lisa Marie Coltrain

“You don’t feel sorry for her: she is a merchant of death.  She is a businesswoman who is preying on the pain of the people of this county.  She manipulates people, and now she’s got just 12 people left to manipulate.  She wants to act like a big, bad drug dealer? Let her go sit in prison with the other big bad drug dealers – find her guilty.”

– Prosecutor Lisa Marie Coltrain

“You don’t feel sorry for her: she is a merchant of death,” Coltrain exclaimed during her closing argument.  “She is a businesswoman who is preying on the pain of the people of this county.  She manipulates people, and now she’s got just 12 people left to manipulate.  She wants to act like a big, bad drug dealer? Let her go sit in prison with the other big bad drug dealers – find her guilty.”

Coltrain recalled for jurors Tuesday “consistent, unwavering” testimony given last week by two friends who’d been with Robert James Starner, Jr. , then 29, white, male, of Burlington in the hours prior to his fatal overdose around 12:30 a.m. on September 15, 2021.  Starner died after ingesting what a toxicologist described last week as lethal amounts of Fentanyl, cocaine, and methamphetamine.

Adlai Walters and Kora Bott, the two friends who’d been with Starner in the hours prior to his fatal overdose, both outlined a similar timeline of events that preceded his overdose death, Coltrain reminded jurors.  “Adlai and Kora have absolutely no reason to be untruthful,” Coltrain said, while also acknowledging that Walters and Bott admitted during their testimony last week to having struggled with substance abuse.  They were interviewed separately by investigators, and each testified separately to the same events, the prosecutor said.

“Their stories lined up because it’s the truth and it makes sense,” Coltrain contended.  Bott, who is currently incarcerated at a women’s prison in Lexington, resisted multiple attempts to convince her to testify but finally relented, saying she was “only doing it for Robert,” who’d been her boyfriend in September 2021, the prosecutor recalled Tuesday.

“Addicts can be honest; just because they’re addicts doesn’t mean they never tell the truth,” Coltrain added.

 

‘Pathologically just cannot be honest’

In contrast, Coltrain portrayed Robinson as a cold-hearted drug dealer who had no remorse and who “pathologically just cannot be honest.”

It was only after she had been hemmed in, during a 4½-hour interview with Burlington police investigators, Robinson confessed to selling Fentanyl.  On September 16, 2021, she told an investigator, “I did not give them any drugs that night,” Coltrain told the jury, playing snippets of a recorded interview with Robinson.

“It was only at that point that she said, ‘I have been spinning this web of deceit for hours and hours and hours,” Coltrain told the jury, speculation on the defendant’s thought process up to that point, when she said yes when asked, “What you’re selling is Fentanyl.”

A subsequent “prison phone call,” Coltrain contended, revealed the truth, when Robinson was recorded telling a male friend, “I lied for 4½-hours; I mean blatant lies.”

Walters and Bott testified that they’d been hanging out with Starner throughout much of the afternoon and evening of September 14 at an apartment on Roslyn Drive that Starner shared with Bott.  Around 9:50 p.m. that night, the trio left the apartment because Starner “said he wanted to get some boy,” Walters testified, explaining that “boy” is one of the street names for heroin.

Walters and Bott testified about riding way out into the southern part of the county with Starner and arriving at a house later determined to be Robinson’s, where Starner got out of the vehicle, spoke with a woman, and came back to the vehicle and, with Bott joining in, immediately snorted whatever he’d gotten from the woman.

Walters told the jury that Starner’s condition devolved so quickly that he had to take the wheel and find his way back to town, eventually stopping at the Cook-Out in Graham to buy himself a milkshake, while Bott and Starner were “rubbing their noses real bad and moaning.”

A state toxicologist testified last week that heroin has fallen out of favor among recreational drug abusers around 2016, and that what’s often referred to as heroin is actually Fentanyl, due to its  wide availability and cheap price.  The toxicologist, Justin Brower, testified that subsequent testing at the office of the Chief Medical Examiner, revealed that Starner had consumed lethal amounts of Fentanyl, cocaine, and meth within approximately 12 hours of his death.

 “Some people go out and stock shelves; some people go out and teach third-graders – she sells Fentanyl. . . She had a ledger; she had scales, because that’s what she does – she’s a drug dealer.”

– Prosecutor Lisa Marie Coltrain

The prosecutor contended that Robinson sold Starner the Fentanyl that resulted in an overdose and ultimately caused his death.  “Some people go out and stock shelves; some people go out and teach third-graders – she sells Fentanyl,” Coltrain told jurors during her closing argument, pointing to multiple text messages entered into evidence last week that indicated Robinson had been lining up multiple drug deals with other customers in the days prior to Starner’s death.

 

Prosecutor: ‘She had a ledger; she had scales’

“She had a ledger; she had scales, because that what she does – she’s a drug dealer,” Coltrain argued, referring to photographs taken at the defendant’s house and introduced at her trial last week.

Coltrain acknowledged flaws in the case that Robinson’s attorneys had apparently highlighted earlier in the trial: discrepancies in the weight of the drugs Starner intended to get, versus what he actually got; and one of the responding officers had forgotten to turn on her body-worn camera.

“Drug sales don’t happen the way Walmart sells bath towels. . . .We know this is how she works – she’s selling this stuff, and she sold to [the victim, Robert Starner].  This was their history: she gave him drugs, and he gave her money.”

– Prosecutor Lisa Marie Coltrain

“That does not change a dad gum thing about what she [Robinson] did,” Coltrain told the jury Tuesday morning.  “Drug sales don’t happen the way Walmart sells bath towels,” she said, elaborating that sometimes people “work off” or trade sex for drugs.  “We know this is how she works – she’s selling this stuff, and she sold to Robert,” Coltrain continued.  “This was their history: she gave him drugs, and he gave her money.”

Coltrain repeatedly hammered at the fact that GPS tracking data downloaded from Walters’ cell phone had placed him, Starner, and Bott at the defendant’s house the night of September 14, 2021, and thousands of text messages appeared to show a pattern of Robinson obtaining and selling drugs to multiple individuals, including the deceased.

“We know she’s out on the west coast until late the 13th [of September],” Coltrain said.  Another text message that investigators obtained from Robinson’s cell phone stated that she had landed in Greensboro.  One of the next messages she sent stated, “I’m on the phone with my people, trying to get things lined up.”

Meanwhile, Walters took Starner and Bott back to Starner’s parents’ house at 415 South Anthony Street in Burlington, where Walters said he left the pair in the car and walked around the corner to an ex-girlfriend’s house. Walters told jurors last week that he later learned about Starner’s death from a Facebook post, a detail that Coltrain told jurors Tuesday morning had been important.

As soon as Robinson woke up the next day, on September 15, the prosecutor said, she was on her phone, calling again and again, trying to reach another person named “Garrett,” who had been in her list of contacts.  Coltrain surmised from that string of calls that Robinson had also sold Fentanyl to Garrett on September 14 and was terrified he had overdosed.

In a text to another person asking if she was okay, Robinson wrote, “‘It has been a very, very bad morning,’” Coltrain told the jury.  “She knew he was dead.” In another text, the defendant wrote, “‘I am changing my number; nobody ever text me again,’” the prosecutor said Tuesday, referring to text messages introduced into evidence last week.  “Why? Because she knew she sold Fentanyl that killed somebody.”

Investigators didn’t specifically target Robinson; instead, the evidence led them to her door, the prosecutor said during her closing argument.

The three elements that Coltrain told jurors needed to be proved in order to find Robinson guilty of death by distribution were: she sold Fentanyl to Starner; the ingestion caused the death of the user; and the commission of the offense was the proximate cause of Starner’s death.  He had been released from jail four days prior to his fatal overdose, based on testimony given last week by multiple witnesses.

While the defense had apparently suggested earlier in the trial that Starner’s death may have been caused by Covid, or “undiagnosed cancer,” Coltrain told the jury Tuesday, “I’m pretty certain I heard two medical doctors say that Fentanyl caused his death.”

 

Defense: Victim had too many drugs in his system to isolate Fentanyl as cause of death

“I don’t have any red herrings,” George Hunt of Graham, one of Robinson’s defense attorneys, told jurors during his closing argument, as he set about trying to poke holes in the state’s case.  Hunt questioned why it was never determined who called 9-1-1 to report Starner’s apparent overdose; and why 1½ hours had passed, between arriving at his parents’ house and calling for medical help.

No one at the scene had a clear understanding of what had occurred during the hours leading up to Starner’s death, Hunt contended, adding that his blood later tested positive for lethal amounts of cocaine and methamphetamine, as well as Fentanyl, and THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana.

A medical examiner who testified last week confirmed on the stand that what constitutes a lethal amount of Fentanyl varies from person to person.  “That’s why you have to have the autopsy,” Hunt argued in his closing, but that wasn’t done for Starner.  First responders who arrived at the scene early September 15, 2021 had administered Narcan (a treatment that can prevent a fatal overdose) to both  Bott and Starner, and it worked for her but not him,  Hunt said.

“The reason, we submit, it worked for Kora and not Robert is because he had ingested” meth and cocaine, “which the defense suggests was the actual cause of death,” Hunt told jurors Tuesday morning.  The toxicologist who testified last week indicated that Starner’s tolerance for the illicit drugs would’ve been reduced, as he had been in jail up until several days prior to his death.

Hunt also insisted that no one really knew what’d transpired throughout the afternoon of September 14, 2021, particularly during an unknown amount of time that Bott and Starner had gone into a bedroom at their apartment on Roslyn Drive, based on Walters’ testimony.   “The point is, you’re entitled to all the evidence,” Hunt told jurors, acknowledging that while they may not have good feelings about the defendant, “the law is the law…you have to listen to and consider all the evidence.”

 

Who stops for a milkshake while best friend is OD’ing?

Hunt also skewered the fact that Walters, while his “best friend was laid out,” nonetheless stopped at Cook-Out in Graham to buy himself a milkshake during the trip back to Burlington that night.  “Most of these fast-food places have cameras…the fact that they don’t have what’s needed” to definitively show what caused Starner’s death shouldn’t be held against Robinson, Hunt argued.

Robinson’s other defense attorney, White, insisted to the jury that there is no direct evidence that Robinson sold Fentanyl to Starner on September 14, 2021. Instead, Walters and Bott testified that they had driven to the southern part of the county because Starner wanted to get some “ron,” another street name for heroin, but Walters told the jury “he didn’t see anything at all,” White said.

Both Walters and Bott testified that they had stayed in the car when they arrived at their destination and couldn’t see anything at all.  “They told you they drove to the house; Robert got out of the car, went in the house, came back, and snorted something,” White said, reminding jurors that in order to convict, they must find beyond a reasonable doubt that Robinson sold Fentanyl to Starner.

Defense attorney George Hunt

“The reason, we submit, [Narcan] worked for Kora and not Robert is because he had ingested” meth and cocaine “which the defense suggests was the actual cause of death.”

– Defense attorney George Hunt

White also pointed to notes taken during an initial interview by one of the lead investigators, sergeant Megan Coggins of the Burlington police department, which the attorney recalled had stated, “‘Kora, Robert, Adlai snorted heroin.’”

“On [cross-examination, Coggins] said, ‘sometimes my notes are not truthful or accurate,’” White reminded jurors, adding that it was the defense’s contention that all three had done heroin before driving to Robinson’s house.

“Speaking of lawyer tricks, let’s talk about this trick: jail phone calls between our client and this Billy Staley,” White continued.  “It’s kind of inconsistent the way madam D.A. wants you to believe certain things but not others.  What is it about those phone calls that made them credible? There’s no reason our client [had to] believe she would ever hear those phone calls again…If she thought or had any notion she would hear those phone calls again, why would she ever admit to anything in this case, and in particular, that she gave the deceased anything in a bag?”

Even if she had been selling drugs – as the state theorized – Robinson had texted another of her contacts at 9:23 p.m. the same night, September 14, “I’m out,” and also told another caller, “I don’t have anything,” White said Tuesday.  “This person who’s making a living selling drugs, [the D.A.] wants you to believe that person is going to turn down that money.”

White raised other questions, in an effort to shed light on other areas in which he said the state had failed to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.  He asked why neither a death certificate nor a “drug cause of death worksheet” had been introduced into evidence at the trial.  “What is that?” he asked.  “It is a sheet used to record data from the toxicology; you put beside a drug a ‘P’ or a ‘C.’  As I recall, a C meant that a particular drug contributed to the death; a P meant that particular drug could’ve caused the death independent of any other drug.”

Defense attorney Octavis White, Jr.

“It’s kind of inconsistent the way madam D.A. wants you to believe certain things but not others.  What is it about those phone calls that made them credible? There’s no reason our client [had to] believe she would ever hear those phone calls again…If she thought or had any notion she would hear those phone calls again, why would she ever admit to anything in this case, and in particular, that she gave the deceased anything in a bag?”

– Defense attorney Octavis White, Jr.

Rather, White indicated that the prosecutor was asking jurors to conclude what the examiner had not: that Fentanyl was the true cause of Starner’s death – when it could’ve easily been cocaine or meth – and that he’d still be alive, had it not been for the Fentanyl he got from Robinson.  “You must do a full autopsy,” he said, referring to earlier testimony by the medical examiner. “This is serious, [and the prosecutor thinks] you should not question the fact that a fully autopsy should have been done but was not for this, that, or the other [reason]?

“This is not a game; this is not a contest between lawyers; this is serious business,” White said in trying to convince the jury that the state had failed to prove its case.  “If you find our client gave Fentanyl to [Starner], your inquiry ends there,” the attorney said, referring to the fact that a provision in the state law that had been in effect when Robinson was charged with death by distribution was predicated on sale of a controlled substance that results in a death by overdose.

 

Judge denies motion for a mistrial

Following a lunch break Tuesday afternoon, Robinson’s defense team entered a motion for a mistrial, as well as a formal objection because they said they had not been allowed an opportunity to offer opening and closing statements to the jury.   Their motion for a mistrial was denied.

The judge proceeded to deliver his instructions to the jury, who retreated to an adjoining conference room and sent word to the judge, Edwin Wilson, Jr., approximately 40 minutes later, at 3:06 p.m. that they had reached a unanimous verdict.  The jury foreman confirmed for the judge that the verdict was unanimous on each charge: death by distribution; sale or delivery of a controlled substance, Fentanyl; maintaining a dwelling to keep controlled substance; and possession of drug paraphernalia.

Coltrain, the prosecutor, had pressed Wilson to sentence Robinson at the top of the range, and for sentences for the rest of her convictions to run consecutively, telling the judge, “This is not a case of just addiction…her actions were hurting other people, and they killed somebody.”

However, Wilson declined, instructing Robinson to stand at the defense table and sentencing her to serve five to seven years (60 to 84 months) in the Department of Corrections, with credit for the 276 days during which she had completed substance abuse treatment at Living Free Ministries.

The other prosecutor on the case, Jordan Ford, who is also with the state Conference of D.A.s, did not make a closing argument.

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