Monday, June 17, 2024

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Trial in sheriff’s daughter’s alleged death by distribution case gets underway


The trial began this week in Alamance County superior court for Emily Jean Robinson, 43, white, female, of 7408 Bass Mountain Road, Snow Camp, who is charged with felony death by distribution of Fentanyl, under a relatively new state law intended to combat the nation’s widespread opioid crisis.

Robinson, who is the daughter of Alamance County’s sheriff, was charged by the Burlington police department after allegedly supplying Fentanyl to Robert James Starner, Jr., then 29, white, male, who died of an apparent overdoes at his parents’ home at 415 South Anthony Street in Burlington on September 15, 2021.

Burlington police arrested Robinson the following day, on September 16, 2021, after learning about her potential involvement in the case, then-assistant Burlington police chief Brian Long told The Alamance News at the time.

Selected to decide Robinson’s fate is a jury comprised of: five white males; two white females; two black females; one black male; one female and one male, who appear to be multiracial; and two black female alternates.

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Robinson’s attorneys, George Hunt and Octavis White, Jr. of Graham, seemed early on in the trial to predicate their defense on a distinction in the state law passed by the General Assembly in 2019, which makes it a felony to sell a controlled substance that leads to a fatal overdose.

Defense attorneys representing Emily Jean Robinson are Octavis White (left) and George Hunt of the Hunt & White law firm in Graham.
Emily Jean Robinson (left) is shown in the courtroom Wednesday afternoon, conferring with her attorneys Octavis White, Jr. (obscured from view) and George Hunt (right) regarding cell phone data that prosecutors intended to introduce at her trial.

That statute “requires a sale,” White told a pool of more than 100 prospective jurors during jury selection on Monday, adding that, if someone gives, rather than sells, a controlled substance resulting in a death by overdose, it does not violate the 2019 law.

A subsequent revision to that law, passed by the General Assembly in September 2023, made any kind of distribution of certain drugs (opioids, cocaine, or methamphetamine) – be it by sale, exchange, or gift – a felony for any offenses committed after December 1 of last year.

The case is being prosecuted by two lawyers with the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys (see related story, this edition).

See story on special provisions undertaken for daughter of sheriff Terry Johnson:

During the first full day of testimony, jurors heard Tuesday from two key witnesses for the state: a white male, Adlai Carroll Walters; and the victim’s then-girlfriend, Kora Ellen Bott.



Friend outlines chronology of final hours

Walters testified that he had met the victim in 2018, and was living in his vehicle parked in the driveway at the home of Starner’s parents, Tammy and James Starner, immediately prior to Starnes’ overdose death in 2021.  Describing himself as a self-employed handyman, Walters acknowledged on the stand, during cross-examination by the defense, that he is a recovering methamphetamine addict and had been convicted within the last 10 years of possession with intent to sell and deliver methamphetamines in Duplin County.

Walters testified that, immediately prior to his best friend’s subsequent death on September 15, 2021, he, Robert Starner, Jr., and Bott had been hanging out throughout much of the afternoon and evening of September 14 at an apartment on Roslyn Drive that Starner shared with Bott.

Walters recalled how he and Starner had been talking about tattooing themselves, and he got out his tattoo gun, but as the evening wore on, they left the apartment because “Robert said he wanted to get some ‘boy,’” which Walters said he took to mean heroin and instead begged Starner to go get something else.

Walters, Starner, and Bott got into the car, and began driving out to a residence out in the country, which cell phone data he later provided to investigators revealed to have been Robinson’s home.

Walters testified that he’d moved to Burlington from Topsail Island a year earlier, and he wasn’t familiar with where they were headed, but he estimated that the three of them drove for about 30 minutes until they stopped at a house.  He pointed to the defendant, Robinson, seated at the defense table with her attorneys inside the superior courtroom within Alamance County’s Historic Court House, as the person who had come to the door once he, Starner, and Bott arrived at their destination on the night of September 14, 2021.

Robinson and Starner “conversated for a minute,” Walters testified, saying he could see and hear what they were saying, though he later conceded that he’d never gotten out of the car.

Walters also testified that Starner had been released from jail four or five days earlier, and that after finishing the conversation with Robinson, Starner returned to the vehicle and along with Bott “snorted a line of whatever they got right there.”  Walters said he refused when offered drugs that night.

The trio drove away, with Starner initially behind the wheel and Walters pleading with him to let him drive when Starner began driving erratically down the dark and curvy road away from what investigators later determined had been Robinson’s house.

Starner “stopped in the middle of the road and got in the front passenger seat,” while he took over the wheel, Walters testified. As he tried to find his way back to Burlington, Walters said he noticed that Starner and Bott “were rubbing their noses real bad and moaning.”  Once he turned onto a road he recognized, and identified for the jury as N.C. Highway 87, Walters recalled that he stopped at Cookout and got himself a milkshake, while Starner and Bott “were still making noise.”

“I just thought he was sleeping it off,” Walters testified.  “I seen people do that before.”

Walters said he eventually found his way back to Starner’s parents’ house on Anthony Street, got out of the vehicle, and took the keys from the ignition and carried them inside the house, fearing that Starner would wake up and try to drive. He said he left the Starner home, to walk around the corner to an ex-girlfriend’s house.  Walters said, as he was leaving, he looked through the sunroof of the vehicle to check on Starner and Bott, whom he described as still “squirming and moaning.”

Walters told the jury that he ultimately learned about his best friend’s death from a Facebook post.



Girlfriend’s testimony: No other use of illegal drugs ‘besides smoking weed’

For her part, Bott outlined much of the same chain of events that preceded her then-boyfriend’s fatal overdose.

Bott, 26, white, female, also acknowledged during her testimony that she is currently an inmate at the North Piedmont Correctional Center for Women in Lexington, which she said was for violating the conditions of her probation for an prior felony conviction.  “Besides smoking weed,” Bott said neither she nor Starner had used any other drugs in the hours leading up to her boyfriend’s fatal overdose.

Bott also testified Tuesday afternoon that she’d remained in the car once she, Starner, and Walters arrived at Robinson’s house the night of September 14, 2021, telling jurors that she couldn’t hear anything that was said when Starner went to Robinson’s door that night.

Neither the prosecutors nor the defense attorneys asked Bott to speculate about why she hadn’t fatally overdosed on the drugs allegedly obtained from Robinson that night – though she admitted on the stand to doing a “bump” (later described as an amount smaller than a “line”) of the drug while they were still sitting in their car in the defendant’s driveway in Snow Camp.



Toxocology report reveals presence of Fentanyl, cocaine, meth

Testimony Wednesday morning centered on Justin Brower, then a forensic toxicologist at the office of the Chief Medical Examiner, whose subsequent analysis and toxicology report revealed that Starner had consumed multiple drugs – including Fentanyl, cocaine, and meth, along with Narcan, an over-the-counter drug used to treat an overdose – prior to his death.

Brower told the jury that, while he couldn’t pinpoint exactly how close to his death that Starner had used those drugs, he could put the timeframe within “maybe 12 hours, probably not even that at most” of the time of death, adding that it had not been the day before.  The forensic toxicologist also said the amount of Fentanyl in Starner’s system “was pretty normal” for these types of overdose cases.

Brower, the toxicologist, testified that, nowadays, when someone says they use heroin, “they’re really talking about Fentanyl,” which he said is due to Fentanyl becoming far more readily available and cheaper over the past decade.  Unlike the pharmaceutical grade Fentanyl administered in a healthcare setting, such as prior to a surgery, illicit, synthetic Fentanyl often “presents” as a brownish powder that’s typically “cut” with another substance, Brower explained.  Starner had been released from jail four to five days prior to overdosing, based on Walters’ testimony.

“Things are added to bulk it up,” Brower said, elaborating that common “cutting agents” include everything from sugars to acetaminophen, and the final product can then be snorted, smoked in a pipe, or liquefied in a spoon and injected.  Fentanyl is “probably 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin,” he explained Wednesday morning.

However, as with most drugs, those who abuse the drug eventually build up a tolerance and need more of the drug to get the same effect.  “If they go off to jail, they’ve lost all their tolerance,” Brower told the jury, adding that if a person were to “pick back up” using the drug following release from jail, he could easily overdose and die.

On Wednesday afternoon, jurors heard testimony from sergeant Megan Coggins of the Burlington police department, who was one of the lead investigators for the Starner case.  For the past 10 years, Coggins said, she has also worked as an investigator with the Alamance Narcotics Enforcement Team (ANET), which she described as a multi-agency team of law enforcement that investigates and follows up on complaints involving drugs.

Coggins testified that her involvement with the case initially began at the home of Starner’s parents, at 415 South Anthony Street in Burlington, sometime between 11:40 and 11:48 a.m. on September 15, 2021, when she responded to a report of a suspected fatal overdose.

Coggins on Wednesday afternoon ultimately corroborated Walters’ earlier testimony about how he’d just returned from a motorcycle rally in Maggie Valley and wound up hanging out at Starner’s apartment on Roslyn Drive, until later that night Starner insisted shortly before 10:00 p.m. on September 14 that they he wanted to go get some “boy,” which Coggins said is one of the street names for heroin.

Coggins recalled how Walters had described to investigators how, once they arrived at the house in southern Alamance County, Starner got out of the vehicle, met with a “larger” white female with brown hair between the ages of 38 and 45 years old.  During an initial interview with investigators on September 15, Walters showed “truthfulness, willingness to help, and saddened by his best friend’s death.”

Cell phone GPS tracking data that Walters allowed investigators to download from his phone traced the movement of Walters, Starner, and Bott from the apartment on Roslyn Drive at 9:49 p.m. on September 14, 2021 to the 7000 block of Bass Mountain Road; back to the Cook-Out at 311 South Main Street where Walters said he’d stopped to buy himself a milkshake; and to Starner’s parents’ house on South Anthony Street, where Walters left on foot, Coggins testified.

Walters was unable to tell investigators the location of the residence they had gone to the night of September 14, but was able to confirm the location after twice accompanying investigators out to where his cell phone had placed him, Starner, and Bott the night of September 14, Coggins recalled on the witness stand Wednesday.

The entire drive time was about 51 minutes, Coggins testified, telling the jury that the timeline from Walters’ cell phone data put the time of the “next event” was at 10:46 p.m. at the Cook-Out in Graham.

The investigator also testified that police eventually located Bott at a friend’s residence at 1124 Ava Street in Burlington around 1:15 p.m. on September 15, 2021.  Bott outlined for Coggins the same chain of events that Walters had, but also described the residence as being on a country road, on the left, just after a curve.

In an initial interview, Bott told investigators that Starner had wanted “to purchase heroin, approximately $20 worth, from a female named Emily,” whom Bott described as being 5’5″ and approximately 180 pounds.”She specifically told us at some point Robert had been in contact with a female…named Emily,” Coggins testified.

Evidence introduced Wednesday afternoon included of a “selection” of cell phone texts and data, which prosecutors said had been among thousands of pages of data and text messages retrieved from the cell phones owned by Robinson, Walters, Bott, and Starner.  The text messages, many of which Coggins read aloud from the witness stand, between Robinson and multiple contacts stored in her phone appeared to be intended to establish the allegation that the defendant had been selling drugs and ultimately sold Starner the Fentanyl that resulted in his death.

Robinson’s trial is scheduled to resume at 9:30 a.m. today in the upstairs courtroom at the Alamance County Historic Court House.  Her parents, Terry and Pat Johnson, have been present for most of the proceedings, seated behind the defense table in the courtroom gallery.

North Carolina law classifies death by distribution of certain controlled substances as a Class C felony.  Conviction of the charge for a defendant with no prior criminal record could result in a sentence ranging between five and six years’ prison time, though the duration of a potential prison sentence increases depending upon prior convictions and other factors, under North Carolina’s sentencing laws.

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