It all comes down to whether Clabon Berniard was there.
Prosecutors say he was. Berniard says he wasn’t.
Berniard, 24, is the fourth and last defendant tied to a fatal home-invasion robbery that started with an online classified ad and ended with the death of Edgewood resident James Sanders on April 28, 2010.
The other three defendants were convicted of first-degree murder and other charges. Berniard’s trial started on Aug. 8.
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On one side stood deputy prosecutors Karen Watson and Mary Robnett – on the other, Berniard and his attorney, Cathleen Gormley. Jurors spent Tuesday and Wednesday listening to the final arguments from both sides.
The first stage of closing arguments came Tuesday afternoon. Watson spent more than an hour clicking through a slide presentation and reading aloud.
“The sole issue in this trial is the defendant’s involvement – whether the defendant was a participant in this crime,” Watson said.
She walked through the incident. The assailants had bound the Sanders family with zip ties, waved guns, demanded money. One was louder than the others, the one who yelled at Sanders’ wife, Charlene, and threatened to kill their two sons.
“He was the one who beat Charlene and kicked her,” Watson said. “He held a gun to her head and counted backwards. He was the one that they referred to as ‘the mean one.’ ”
Watson, fingering a remote control, clicked through more slides. Maps flickered on the screen, followed by enlarged images of phone bills, diagrams and more maps.
It was backing. The identification of Berniard was indirect. No one saw his face at the scene.
Charlene Sanders had identified him by his voice, overheard on a TV broadcast. The sons had described a light-skinned black man.
Investigators had tracked a phone belonging to Berniard and traced its movements using phone tower signals. A television crew had captured footage of Berniard’s younger sister, Lacey, who said she’d heard her brother talking of a robbery.
The presentation was long. Watson droned, her speech scattered with ums. She defined the words “building” and “firearm.” She recited jury instructions word for word. A few jurors began to fidget.
Watson asked for a guilty verdict, thanked the jury and sat.
Gormley’s turn for argument came Wednesday morning. She spoke directly to the jurors – no slides.
The case hinged on the identification of Berniard, which was less than perfect. No one saw the mean guy’s face.
Gormley spoke of confirmation bias. It meant hearing and seeing what you expect to hear and see.
Charlene Sanders’ pegging Berniard by his voice on a TV broadcast was a good example, Gormley suggested. It fit the template of belief based on prior desire. It wasn’t good enough.
The description of “the mean one” was vague. The assailant wore a hoodie and a bandanna. The witnesses said he was a light-skinned, chubby black man.
“There are a lot of light-skinned African-American young men in this county and this state,” Gormley said.
Berniard’s sister, Lacey, was moderately retarded, Gormley said. Her word was unreliable. The phone records didn’t prove Berniard was in the house. The prosecutors hadn’t proved their case beyond a reasonable doubt.
Gormley asked for a not-guilty verdict and sat.
Robnett, the closer, stood to give the prosecution’s rebuttal.
“Something went wrong during this robbery because Jim Sanders decided to fight,” she said. “What went wrong that night is that Jim Sanders resisted and then he ended up dead.”
Robnett tackled Gormley’s assertions that witnesses weren’t reliable.
“There’s plenty of evidence to show that this defendant was involved with the other three who’ve been amply identified as involved in this crime,” she said.
The jurors could believe the statements of Berniard’s sister, Robnett said. The jurors could believe Charlene Sanders, who identified the voice of the “mean one.”
They could believe the readings from the phone towers that showed Berniard’s phone in the area of the murder.
“Look at what happened to this family during this event,” Robnett said.
She held up pictures of the victims. She asked for a guilty verdict and thanked the jury.
The arguments were over. The jurors filed out and began deliberations.
Berniard left the courtroom in cuffs, escorted by a sheriff’s deputy.
Attorneys boxed up the trial exhibits for jurors to examine: photographs, maps, printed phone records and a box of bullets. One plastic bag contained the zip ties used to bind the Sanders family. Another held Charlene Sanders’ wallet.
Outside the courtroom, Robnett and Watson stepped into a meeting room with members of the Sanders family and shut the door. Sounds of congratulation and quiet applause followed.
Nearby, against a wall, Berniard’s mother, Joan, sobbed into a friend’s shoulder for a long time.
Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486 sean.robinson@ thenewstribune.com