By Betsy Finklea
Testimony got underway on Wednesday in the trial of the State v. Damien Inman in the murder, kidnapping and armed robbery of 75-year-old Mary Alice Stutts in August 2009.
Judge Thomas Russo, who has sentenced the other two defendants in this case, is presiding over the case.
Deputy Solicitor Kernard Redmond and Assistant Solicitor Shipp Daniel are representing the State. Rosalind Sellers of the Sellers Law Firm was appointed to represent the defense.
The first two days of the trial on Monday and Tuesday were somewhat unusual.
Jury selection was held on Monday and took up much of the day as three juries were drawn.
After the first jury was selected, the judge heard motions regarding jury selection lodged by the State. The jury was thrown out, and a new jury was selected.
A second jury was selected, and once again, a motion was made by the State regarding jury selection. The second jury was thrown out, and the selection of the third jury began shortly before 5:15 p.m.
When the third jury was selected, this time the defense made a motion regarding jury selection. The judge denied the motion, and the third jury stood. On Tuesday, the court heard from Geoffrey R. McKee, who was qualified as a a forensic psychiatry expert, to determine if Inman was competent to stand trial. After hearing his remarks, the judge determined that Inman was competent to stand trial.
Another hearing was held to determine if Inman’s statement was admissible and if it was free and voluntarily given.
After this hearing, Inman indicated that he wanted to enter a plea.
As part of a plea deal, the State had agreed to recommend 50 years for the murder, armed robbery, kidnapping, burglary first, grand larceny and criminal conspiracy charges and five years consecutive on a weapons charge. Redmond said he didn’t like being a yo-yo so the deal was only open until the judge left on Tuesday.
Sellers told the court that she had conveyed to Inman and his mother and sister that he was facing a maximum of two life sentences and 75 years if he was convicted.
Inman then went before the judge to enter his plea. Inman didn’t appear to be giving his attention to the clerk who was trying to swear him in and instead appeared to be trying to communicate with his mother who was standing in the front of the courtroom with him. The judge told his mother that she had a right to be there unless he determined that she was being disruptive and that he would have her removed. She said her son wanted to tell her something. The judge said he had a jury ready to go and ready to proceed. He said that Inman had indicated that he wished to enter and plea and he was trying to respect that. He told Inman to give the clerk his attention. He appeared to continue to stall in not answering the judge’s questions and the judge said he was not going to accept his plea because “Mr. Inman has no interest in pleading.”
The judge told Inman if he wanted to enter a plea that was fine, but that no one was going to force him to do it.
He told Inman that he had a decision he had to make, and it was a decision that every person who comes before the court must make. The judge said you can listen to your parents and others folks, but the decision has to be Inman’s because the reality is that if it doesn’t go his way, he is serving time.
The judge further told Inman that if he was concerned about speaking to his mother and sister, he would give him the opportunity to do so.
“I don’t want you to do anything you don’t want to do,” the judge said. “I’m here to protect your rights.”
He then told Inman to tell him what he wanted to do. Then he decided to give him five minutes with Sellers and his family before proceeding.
Then he addressed Inman’s mother. “Ma’am, I don’t know what you intend to do, but I’m going to tell you right now. Do yourself a favor. If you love that boy, take your feelings out of it.” The judge told her to do what’s right for her son and his best interest not hers.
The judge then told Inman he was going to give him some advice. “In this situation, I’m going to hear my mama, and I’m going to listen to her, but I’m going to do what I think is in my best interest, not what mama thinks,” Judge Russo said.
After a short break, Inman appeared to enter the plea again. He then asked if he pled to the charges if he could appeal.
The judge explained that he was going to go over his rights and if he had any questions to let him know. He went over the charges and the possible maximum penalties.
The plea was being entered under N.C. v. Alford which is pleading guilty to the charges without admitting any wrongdoing.
The judge explained what this meant.
Again, Inman asked about his right to appeal.
The judge told him that no one should enter a plea with the idea that they were going to appeal and if that was the reason he was entering it, he was not going to accept it. He explained to Inman that he didn’t have to accept a plea.
The judge said they were getting ready to wrap this up and stop putting the courtroom through this. He told him if he wanted to enter a plea, he better start listening.
“You think everybody here is out to get you,” the judge told Inman. “My goal in life is to make sure your rights are protected.”
Judge Russo told Inman that if he went forward and accepted the state’s recommendation that in his best case scenario, if he filed an appeal and the court agreed that he would come back to this courtroom and start over. He would not be released. Judge Russo told him that the only way he would go free is if a jury found him not guilty or the charges were dismissed. He said he had had enough of the questions about the right to appeal.
Judge Russo asked Inman if he wanted to plead or if he wanted a jury trial. Inman said he wanted a jury trial.
Redmond put on the record that the deal was officially off the table.
On Wednesday morning, the day started with a juror being removed. She realized her niece was a witness and reported it to the court. This juror was replaced with an alternate.
Then opening statements were held. Assistant Solicitor Daniel gave the opening statement for the State. He said this case was about the last hours of 75-year-old Mary Alice Stutts.
He briefly went over the details he thought his case would show and told the jury that at the end of this case, they will have a decision to make. He also explained the concept of the hand of one is the hand of all and said the State has a statement by Inman and witnesses to show he was an active participant.
“In the last hours of Mary Alice Stutts, she tried to help three men get water. What did she get? Death. Death at the hands of three men—one being Damien Inman.”
Attorney Sellers then gave her opening statement. She said there were no forensics linking her client to this crime and that mere presence does not mean that he is guilty of a crime. She told the jurors to listen to the witnesses and then ask themselves what reason they would have to lie. She said they had a serious job and asked them to keep an open mind. “This young man is innocent until proven guilty,” Sellers said. She said after listening to the evidence she felt they would find a verdict of not guilty.
Then the state began presenting their witnesses. The first witness was Joshua R. Lee, the grandson of Mary Stutts. He said he had borrowed her car that day and returned it about 6-6:15 p.m. He said this was the last time he saw her. Later at about 9 p.m., he tried to call her, but didn’t get her and thought she must have gone to sleep.
The next to testify was Ricky Lee, the son-in-law of Mary Alice Stutts. He went by to check on her that morning after not being able to reach her the night before. When he arrived her car was not there, the door was open and the key plaque had been removed from the wall. He found the water running in the back yard. He drove around looking for her, but when he didn’t find her he called his wife who was on the way to work. When they didn’t find her they called police.
Cpl. Crystal Norris of the City of Dillon Police Department took the stand next. She talked about the scene she found at the Stutts home and the steps she took as an officer. She talked about the pitcher left on the counter, and a shoe and stroller found in the back yard.
Testimony was continuing at press time. The verdict will be published on www.thedillonherald.com with further details in next week’s paper.
By Betsy Finklea