What is believed to be North Carolina’s first murder trial without a jury veered through opening testimony Friday with Todd Boderick’s future squarely in the hands of his judge.
Adding to the strangeness in Courtroom 5370 is that Boderick, accused of the 2012 beating death of his 6-month-old daughter Keyoni, is serving as his own attorney. If convicted of first-degree murder by Superior Court Judge Robert Sumner, the 28-year-old Charlotte man faces a mandatory life sentence without parole.
Calvin Coleman, one of three attorneys Boderick has gone through since his 2012 arrest, questioned the trial’s fairness. He told Sumner that Boderick needed counsel and more time to arrange expert witnesses.
“He has been denied right to counsel,” Coleman told the judge. “This is not a fair trial. It cannot be a fair trial.”
The Shelby attorney gestured toward prosecutors Bill Stetzer and Bill Bunting. “Two attorneys with, I don’t know how much experience, and you’ve got Todd with a ninth-grade education,” he said.
Sumner listened with little expression and asked the occasional question. To his left: the vacant jury box with unopened water bottles at each seat.
The absence of a jury in felony cases became possible under a 2014 North Carolina constitutional amendment that allows defendants to request a “bench trial” in which a judge decides the verdict. Bench trials are common for lesser offenses. And while other states use them for the most serious cases, lawyers on both sides of the trial, along with a series of Charlotte attorneys contacted by the Observer did not know of another time when it has been used in a North Carolina murder trial.
Boderick and Coleman first requested a bench trial on Monday after Boderick stumbled through his opening questions during jury selection. Sumner declined.
The judge reconsidered Wednesday when a potential juror accused Boderick in open court of robbing her boyfriend. The entire jury pool had to be thrown out, and North Carolina legal history was about to be made.
On Monday, Boderick asked that Coleman be reappointed to handle his defense. Sumner refused, saying that another judge had ruled Boderick had forfeited his right to an attorney by firing two lawyers and clashing with Coleman, who asked to be removed from the case. Coleman is serving as Boderick’s court-appointed legal adviser for the trial.
The attorney sat in the first row of the courtroom, sometimes voicing objections, frequently conferring with Boderick when his former client turned to ask him a question. Over lunchtime, Coleman said he jotted down some questions for Boderick’s cross-examination of Medical Examiner Thomas Owens, who did Keyoni’s autopsy. “Can you say specifically what injuries killed my daughter,” Boderick asked at one point.
“It’s not the way I would have asked them, but he couldn’t do it another way,” Coleman said later.
Legal experts contacted about the case say the absence of a jury can cut two ways for Boderick. Judges know the law better than most jurors, so legal errors are unlikely. But defendants, especially those representing themselves, lose potential sympathy votes by having “a judge who hears cases all day every day vs. a jury of their peers who might hear one case in their lifetime,” veteran Charlotte defense attorney George Laughrun said.
Several experts, who did not wish to be named because they are not involved with the case, said the denial of Boderick’s requests for an attorney this week may be grounds for an appeal.
Judge Sumner said Boderick’s trial predicament was of his own making.
“He had the right to counsel not once, not twice but three times,” Sumner said. “I understand it is a burden and a hardship. I also believe that actions have consequences. We move forward today.”
Boderick did not offer an opening statement – he told Sumner he didn’t know how – and he asked only one question of the prosecution witnesses during the first three hours of testimony.
When Stetzer, the prosecutor, brought over hospital photos of the defendant’s dead daughter, Boderick waved them away.
Keyoni Boderick’s life appears to have been as violent as it was short. She was found unresponsive in her parents’ motel room on Oct. 27, 2012. The police officer who found the child testified that Boderick waved her down from a second-story balcony. She described his demeanor as “nonchalant, normal. Not normal for the circumstances.”
Owens said the autopsy revealed fractures to both sides of Keyoni’s skull, as if her head had been stomped. Ten of her ribs had been broken at least twice. Owens said he believed she had been shaken so hard that her optic nerves had ruptured. The child had dozens of scars left from scratches on her face and legs that had initially drawn blood.
Her injuries, Owens said, ranged from two weeks to two hours old when she died. They were not accidental. “This was a death by physical assault ... with evidence that she had been repeatedly injured, with no evidence of medical intervention.”
Boderick and the girl’s mother, Krishay Mouzon, told police that Keyoni had fallen off the hotel bed. Under questioning by Bunting, Owens said the infant’s injuries were so severe that the bed would have had to been two or three stories high.
Mouzon is charged with murder in Keyoni’s death but has not faced trial. The couple also were arrested in 2010 on child-abuse charges when Mouzon’s 7-week-old son with another man was hospitalized with similar injuries to Keyoni’s. Those charges were later dropped.
Mouzon is expected to testify on Monday. Boderick almost certainly will cross-examine her.