Jurors Acquit Roberts of Murder, Deadlock on Manslaughter of Boy
After five years and three trials, Darrell Roberts, 32, was acquitted Friday of murder charges in the death of a girlfriend’s 2-year-old son after a sudden turnabout by an Orange County Superior Court jury.
Roberts will return to court Thursday, however, because the same jury is deadlocked 8 to 4 for his acquittal on a lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter.
Judge Robert K. Turner indicated that he is inclined to order the charge dismissed but wants to hear what the prosecutors say next week.
Roberts, of Santa Ana, was charged with second-degree murder in the death of Julius Caesar Mathis Jr., whom he was baby-sitting while the child’s mother was at work. His first trial ended in a mistrial in 1983, with the jury deadlocked 9 to 3 in favor of acquittal.
A mistrial was declared at Roberts’ second trial last summer, after the prosecution’s pathologist informed the court that some of the evidence had been mishandled.
Mother in Tears
On Friday, Roberts’ mother, Marcelle, left the courtroom in tears when she heard the murder acquittal. Roberts, however, simply shook his head.
“I knew I was going to be acquitted on the murder,” he said. “But how could four jurors still be hung up on this thing? I either did the murder or I didn’t. It’s like they figured, ‘Well, maybe we ought to give him something.’ ”
The news from the jury room turned out to be much better than Roberts or his numerous supporters in the courtroom at first were told.
The jury sent Turner a message Friday afternoon stating that they were “hopelessly” deadlocked. Turner asked the foreman to tell him what the final vote was without saying if it was for a verdict of guilty or not guilty. The foreman replied that the vote was 8 to 4.
Under questioning from Turner, the foreman said the deadlock was on the question of second-degree murder only, and that the jurors had not even considered the lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter.
Jurors Break Deadlock
Turner then sent the jurors back to the jury room so he could talk to the attorneys for both sides. He had the jurors brought back less than four minutes later, but, to the judge’s amazement, the foreman said the deadlock of a few minutes before had been broken--with jurors now voting unanimously for acquittal on the murder charge.
Turner and the attorneys, who seemed unfazed by the announcement, needed to confer again, so the judge sent the jurors out of earshot once more.
Again, without prodding from Turner, the jury took another vote. This time the foreman announced that the vote had been taken on the involuntary manslaughter charge, and was 8 to 4 for a not-guilty verdict.
Roberts’ attorney, Milton C. Grimes, said he could not get the jurors to talk to him afterward but offered his interpretation for the sudden turnaround in voting:
“I believe the four votes for murder decided that they had better compromise, so they dropped their position on the murder charge and then stood their ground on involuntary manslaughter,” Grimes said.
The issue of Roberts’ guilt or innocence was overshadowed during the second trial last year by the issue of missing evidence.
Dr. Walter Fischer, one of three forensic pathologists who worked together on a contract to perform autopsies for the county, admitted in court that he had failed to turn over to either the prosecution or the defense--for use at the first trial--more than a dozen tissue slides he had taken during the autopsy. He said he had turned over most of the slides but found that some had inadvertently been placed in a shoe box at his office.
On Witness Stand
Fischer was on the witness stand for more than a week explaining how this could have happened. Soon after his testimony, newspaper stories appeared questioning Fischer’s competency in the Roberts case and in other criminal cases.
Fischer shocked his family and friends, and those involved in the Roberts’ trial, by committing suicide on July 8, 1985.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Franklin L. Carroll then produced three outside doctors who, based on Fischer’s work, testified that the child’s injuries probably came in the few hours preceding the death, when he was in Roberts’ care.
But Grimes countered with experts of his own, including Orange County’s noted trauma expert John West, who testified that the injuries could have occurred up to a week before the child died.
Roberts, a former high school football and track coach and now a high school sports referee, has already served nine months in jail while trying to make bail.
If he is found guilty of involuntary manslaughter at another trial, he would probably serve very little additional time, based on the sentence he could expect and the time he has already served.
“Serving the time isn’t that important,” Roberts said. “What counts is clearing my name.”