Monday, November 24, 2008

Jury recommends death for Little for killing cabdriver

[Editor's Comment: First NC Death Sentence of 2008]

Winston-Salem Journal, November 21, 2008

James Ray Little III, right, enters court Wednesday with his attorney, Clark Fischer.

A jury in Forsyth Superior Court today recommended a death sentence for James Ray Little III for murdering a cabdriver in 2006.

Little, 22, was convicted Monday of robbing and fatally shooting Bira Gueye on Patrick Street, in northeastern Winston-Salem. Jurors began deciding yesterday whether the crime deserved death or life in prison.

After more than four hours of discussing the case, jurors returned a unanimous recommendation for the death penalty.

As Judge Stuart Albright read the jury's findings just after noon, Little's mother, Susan Bulger, cried, "Oh my god, no. No!"

Bulger was too distraught to leave the courtroom. An ambulance was called for her after she said she could not breathe.

The jury recommendation requires Albright to sentence Little to death. Albright said he would do so at 2, after the courthouse lunch break.

In her closing argument yesterday, Jennifer Martin, an assistant district attorney, said that Little's attorneys were trying to use his troubled upbringing and limited intelligence to keep jurors from the right punishment.

"We're asking you to let the blame rest where it deserves to be," Martin said. "The punishment in this case should be severe. It should be the ultimate punishment."

Clark Fischer and Chris Beechler, attorneys for Little, argued for about 20 different factors that could lessen the severity of the crime, including evidence of a troubled upbringing.

"When James came into this world, he had serious emotional and intellectual limitations. He never had the tools to succeed in society," Fischer said. "The state's argument is the age-old cry for revenge."

James Hilkey, a psychologist testifying for Little's defense, said that Little's crime fits a pattern of acting impulsively.

"He doesn't have the intellectual ability to stop, think and deliberate about the action," Hilkey said. "He's quick to judge, quick to act."

Under state law, anyone with an IQ of 70 or lower is considered mentally retarded and cannot be executed.

A test showed Little's IQ is 79, on the upper end of the range for borderline IQ, Hilkey said.

Little wandered the streets of northeastern Winston-Salem on the night of Oct. 4 and early the next morning, looking for people to rob to buy marijuana, according to trial testimony and his confession to police.

He robbed and pistol-whipped two men in a park, then used one of their cell phones to call a cab. He planned to rob the first cab, but reconsidered after he recognized the driver, he told police.

Gueye's cab was then dispatched to pick up Little on Patrick Street. Little robbed Gueye and shot him in the back twice.

Jurors rejected Little's explanation that he shot because Gueye reached for the gun. They found him guilty of first-degree murder, armed robbery and possession of a firearm by a felon.

In the death-penalty phase of the trial, prosecutors showed that Little has past convictions for larceny from a person, felony larceny and motor-vehicle theft.

He also had discipline problems at the Forsyth County Jail, and he tried to fight a courtroom deputy after his conviction Monday.

When Little was 18, he knocked down a 9-year-old boy and took his lunch money. He pleaded guilty to larceny from a person. That act, prosecutors argue, qualifies as a past violent felony -- one of three factors they say that makes the latest crime merit the death penalty. The two others are that the murder was committed for financial gain -- Little took at least $20 from Gueye -- and that it was part of a pattern of violent crime that night.

Beechler acknowledged that Little's knocking down of the boy was bad, but he said that "it doesn't tip the scales in favor of sentencing him to death."

Beechler and Fisher have highlighted Little's troubled upbringing -- his mother's drug abuse before he was born, frequent moves and occasional evictions and his absent father.

Little regularly had discipline problems in school but was repeatedly promoted to the next grade despite his failing marks.

By the time he dropped out of Carver High School in the ninth grade, his English teacher was assigning him work at the third-grade level.

"What you have seen in this court is a child in a man's body," Fischer said. "He is not the worst of the worst."

For most of their arguments, the two sides argued different sides of the same fact.

For example, Little's family life included two brothers who have served time in prison, part of a pattern of people around Little who have set poor examples, his attorneys argued.

But he also has a brother who attended college, Martin said.

"You cannot continue to blame everybody else for your problems," she said.

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