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Murder trial in Dunbar killing resumes; jury expected to deliberate Thursday
With just 12 jurors at outset, absences caused delay
Judge John Turner, center, is shown at a sidebar with attorneys on Monday as the murder trial of Brendyn Laroy Carter and Thomas Isreal Cooper began in the shooting death of Dexter Dunbar in Sept. 2019. With only 11 jurors available Tuesday, Judge Turner
Judge John Turner, center, is shown at a sidebar with attorneys on Monday as the murder trial of Brendyn Laroy Carter and Thomas Isreal Cooper began in the shooting death of Dexter Dunbar in Sept. 2019. The trial resumed during the noon hour Wednesday after a day and a half postponement during which the jury fell short of having the required 12 members. - photo by By SCOTT BRYANT/staff

The trial of Brendyn Laroy Carter and Thomas Isreal Cooper on murder charges for the September 2019 shooting death of Dexter L. Dunbar Jr. resumed during the noon hour Wednesday after a day and a half postponement during which the jury fell short of having the required 12 members.

After the first day of the trial Monday, one juror called in sick and with a sick child before 9 a.m. Tuesday, prompting Judge John R. “Robbie” Turner to  send the other  11 jurors home with instructions  to return the  next day. That juror was well and present at 9 a.m. Wednesday, but then another juror, who is a truck driver, had driven his truck to make a haul, had a flat tire and was three hours away. So the court released the jurors again but treated them to lunch in the Judicial Annex at 11:30 a.m., after which all 12 were present when Turner reconvened the trial at about 12:30 p.m. Wednesday.

“I have never in 30-something years experienced quite the number of problems we’ve had,” he had said that morning.

He also said he was glad the mother and her child had recovered from their brief illness and that he couldn’t blame the truck driver for wanting to work when he had the chance. The judge thanked the jurors for their service, which he told them is important to the defendants and the community.

 

Two-year wait

Carter, now 24, and Cooper, now 22, both from Sylvania in Screven County, had been held in the Bulloch County Jail for more than two years awaiting trial.

Dunbar, 27 and also from Sylvania, died after being  shot multiple  times in the chest and back in a parking lot of the  Stadium Walk apartment  complex on Statesboro’s Lanier Drive early on Sept. 15, 2019.

Of course, for nearly a year beginning in March 2020, jury proceedings were halted statewide because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and they have resumed this year with some persistent backlog.

Turner, who retired from the full-time Ogeechee Judicial Circuit Superior Court bench at the end of 2016, is one of several “senior judges,” who assist the courts with specifically assigned cases. But this is a long-established practice, not in itself new with the pandemic.

The trial has been held in one of the small, regular courtrooms upstairs at the Bulloch County Judicial Annex, not in the larger downstairs jury assembly room, which was outfitted as a courtroom when jury trials first resumed last spring.

When jury selection for the Carter and Cooper case was held in September, more than three weeks before the trial, 14 jurors – including the required 12 and two alternates – were chosen for this case. But then two jurors sought deferrals for different reasons. A hearing was held one week before the trial and those two jurors were excused, leaving only the 12.

 

Jailhouse interview

Wednesday afternoon the prosecutors – Assistant District Attorney Russell Jones and Chief Assistant District Attorney Barclay Black – called Senior Detective Eric Short of the Statesboro Police Department to the stand as their last witness. The centerpiece of the prosecutors’ presentation was a more than 45-minute audio recording of an interview that Short and SPD Capt. Jared Akins conducted of Cooper at the Bulloch County Jail on Sept. 16, 2019.

The defense attorneys – Sims Lanier representing Cooper and Malone Hart representing Carter – cross-examined witnesses throughout the prosecution’s presentation.

But the only witness called specifically by the defense was an aunt of Cooper’s whom  Lanier called as a character witness. Her testimony was limited to her nephew’s reputation for peacefulness and truthfulness, after Turner accepted Black’s argument about a point of law on this.  Cooper’s aunt answered that his reputation was “good” on both points.

As attorneys had predicted in their opening statements, witnesses said that Carter and Dunbar fought briefly with their fists before Cooper shot Dunbar. Cooper also indicated this in the recorded interview with Short and Akins, which was not direct testimony but a jailhouse interview with no attorney present. Cooper could also be heard saying that Carter did not know what he, Cooper, was going to do.

At the end of Wednesday’s court session, Hart offered a motion for a directed verdict for Carter, on the basis that there was “no evidence of intent” on his part. But Black asked that the motion be denied “particularly on the theory of party to a crime,” and Turner denied the motion, saying the court would let the jury decide.

Both sides having concluded their presentation of evidence, the judge instructed the jury to return  at 8:30 a.m. Thursday for closing arguments.

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