The jurors in the murder trial stemming from the 2010 shooting death of a 2-year-old Charlotte boy began deliberations Tuesday with a key question to answer: Which story do they believe from Eastbrook Road?
On Aug. 12, 2010, Amias Robinson was shot in the neck while he sat in his stroller, caught in a violent dispute in the northeast Charlotte neighborhood over a $10 drug deal.
Ellis Royster, who lived where the shooting occurred, is charged with first-degree murder in connection with the case. If found guilty, the convicted felon and former student at Central Piedmont Community College faces a life sentence without parole.
Witnesses in the eight-day trial placed the 25-year-old in the driveway of his grandmother’s home, firing a 9 mm handgun at a passing car. One of the bullets hit Amias, prosecutors said. The child died four days later.
In his closing arguments, defense attorney Richard Tomberlin repeatedly reminded the jurors that another man initially had been charged with the crime: the crack dealer who “owned” the neighborhood, Alvin Alexander.
Tomberlin also emphasized that a host of witnesses, including the three teenagers in charge of Amias that night, originally told police that Alexander fired the gun before fleeing in a bronze-colored SUV.
Tomberlin closed his case by putting his client on the stand.
Royster, 25, contradicted all the previous witnesses who had been on Eastbrook Road that night by saying he was in his bedroom when the shooting occurred.
He said he reached the front door of his home in time to clear space so his grandmother could perform CPR on the wounded toddler on the home’s front porch.
Prosecution: Killer, coward
Assistant District Attorney Jay Ashendorf, however, called Royster a “killer and a coward” who had reacted violently after his Eastbrook friend, Shariff Baker, had been bilked out of $10 by another neighborhood teen.
Shortly before the shooting, Royster sent the teen a text: “Bring that n---er’s money back or stay out of my hood.”
Minutes later, Ashendorf said, Royster opened fire as the teen’s car rolled by his house.
The prosecutor opened his closing argument by showing a picture of the dead toddler to the courtroom, then describing Amias as the most “defenseless, helpless person” on Eastbrook Road that night.
“He couldn’t duck when he heard the first shot,” the prosecutor said as the child’s mother and father rose to their feet and hurried from the courtroom. “He couldn’t hit the ground like the girls did.”
The prosecution’s case has been complicated from the start, given that police originally believed Alexander to be the killer. Many of the witnesses have offered conflicting accounts, at one point or the other identifying both Alexander and Royster as the killers.
Ashendorf singled out one of those witnesses, Shariff Baker, who testified that he was at Royster’s side when Royster unexpectedly pulled a gun and began firing at the passing car.
Ashendorf said Baker told four different police officers that Royster was the shooter. Baker only changed his story, the prosecutor said, because two Charlotte-Mecklenburg police detectives told him he was lying and threatened to jail him on an attempted murder charge.
Ashendorf also tried to prop up Alexander before the jury’s eyes. He told them Alexander “is not a model citizen,” and that he fled the scene rather than help a dying child.
But he reminded the courtroom that Alexander returned to the neighborhood after learning that he had been linked to the shooting, and had willingly talked with police “to clear his name.”
Defense: Use common sense
Tomberlin told the eight women and four men who will decide the case that his client is “presumed innocent,” and that they are “the finders of fact” over the prosecution’s case.
Alluding to the changing accounts of witnesses, Tomberlin urged the jurors not to “throw out your common sense.”
“If someone lies to you the first time, do you automatically believe them the second time?” he asked.
He expressed condolences to the family.
“This is a child that never should have died,” he said. “But this is not about the child. This case is about criminal activity... You’re not here to help the family find closure.”
Police got it right when they arrested Alexander the day after the shooting, Tomberlin said. So did the witnesses who identified him as the gunman.
He derided the same witnesses’ later testimony that Royster had pulled the trigger, saying that they came up with a different story two months later, “and are asking you to swallow it whole.”