Second mistrial hits Duluth murder case
Aaron Demetrius Humphreys has been put on trial twice this year for the fatal shooting of 47-year-old Eric Wayne Burns outside Lincoln Park's Bedrock Bar in October 2016.
And yet the 44-year-old Duluth man, who denies pulling the trigger, is no closer to learning his fate than he was last year.
For the second time in less than four months, 6th Judicial District Judge David Johnson on Tuesday declared a mistrial before the case's first witness could even take the stand.
This time, the abrupt conclusion came before Humphreys' defense attorney could even finish his opening statement to the 15-member jury, which was empanelled just hours earlier.
The judge said he was left with no choice but to postpone the trial, yet again, after finding cause to dismiss four jurors. The issue arose after one panelist reported a recent interaction with a potentially key figure in the case.
Attorneys on both sides appeared dismayed by the situation. Humphreys, dressed in a dark suit with a blue shirt and tie, cried and reached for a box of tissues after learning that his trial had been called off for a second time.
As with the first mistrial, the mishap involved the defense's argument that the shooting was committed by another man known only by the nickname "Memphis."
In January, it was defense attorney Kassius Benson's surprise assertion of the alternative perpetrator that prompted prosecutors to successfully seek a delay in order to allow for follow-up investigation.
On Tuesday, with additional police work completed and the trial ready to start anew, it was the juror's surprise revelation of a recent encounter with a man named Memphis that derailed the case all over again.
The juror raised the issue during Benson's opening statement, which had been temporarily halted due to an unrelated objection by prosecutors. Johnson was meeting with the attorneys in a sidebar discussion at the bench when the juror summoned the bailiff to disclose the issue.
After a lengthy discussion in the judge's chambers, Johnson questioned the juror outside the presence of the rest of the panel. The juror testified that within the past month he had given a ride to man who introduced himself as Memphis and reported to be from that city.
In separate questioning by the judge, three other jurors seated nearby reported that they were able to hear the man's comments to the bailiff.
With Johnson finding sufficient basis to dismiss all four jurors — bringing the panel down to 11 jurors — Assistant St. Louis County Attorney Nate Stumme reluctantly made the formal motion for a mistrial.
Benson did not object to the request, saying he and his client would not be agreeable to continuing the trial with fewer than the standard 12 jurors.
Courts routinely seat one or more additional jurors in criminal cases to ensure that the trial can continue even if one must be dismissed before the case reaches a verdict. In this case, the panel of nine men and six women included three alternates.
Illnesses and other unforeseen circumstances do arise — but there is no remedy to having four jurors dismissed due to outside information that could potentially compromise their judgment.
The attorneys' opening statements began early Tuesday afternoon and had contained few surprises, focusing largely on surveillance video that has yet to be shown to a jury or released publicly.
Stumme mainly stuck to the same script from his opening address to jurors in January, never mentioning the possibility of a different shooter.
The prosecutor told jurors that the video would clearly show Humphreys shooting 47-year-old Burns at the front door of the Bedrock, 2023 W. Superior St., shortly after midnight on Oct. 18, 2016.
Stumme said the shooting came minutes after the video captured Humphreys striking and kicking the victim multiple times inside the Lincoln Park bar, actions apparently stemming from a dispute with a third man, Orin Bernard Vann.
Stumme said the video shows Burns returning to the business moments after having left, carrying only a broken remote control. He said the video would show Humphreys extending an arm out the door and firing a single shot into Burns' chest.
"The evidence will show beyond a reasonable doubt that this murder was totally unjustified, unnecessary and unreasonable," Stumme told jurors.
Benson was equally blunt in starting off his abbreviated opening statement.
"They got the wrong man," the defense attorney said. "Aaron Humphreys did not shoot Eric Burns. He did not kill Eric Burns. He is not responsible for the death of Eric Burns. He is innocent."
Benson said Burns was highly intoxicated and had methamphetamine in his system at the time, and said the object the victim was carrying was actually two remote controls duct-taped together to mimic the appearance of a gun. He contended that Humphreys was acting in self-defense when he was seen striking the victim before the shooting.
Benson again told jurors that the shooting was instead committed by Memphis, who his client knew to be a friend of Vann's. He said Humphreys was carrying only a baton at the time of the shooting and said the video would show that there was no muzzle flash from his hand.
The defense attorney added that police had been investigating the name Memphis in recent months and had turned up information on four separate people who use that nickname — all apparently from the Tennessee city and now living in the Duluth area. Benson contended that police were able to positively identify only one, a man he said was in prison at the time.
It was at that point when Stumme asked to approach the bench for a sidebar discussion, which allows the judge to privately discuss issues with the attorneys. As that conversation was occurring, the juror called on the bailiff to report his potential issue, prompting the mistrial.
Stumme and Benson had little comment outside the courtroom, both expressing disappointment with the situation but vowing to continue to a third attempt at a trial, which Johnson scheduled to begin July 17.
Humphreys faces charges of intentional second-degree murder, being a felon in possession of a firearm and fifth-degree assault. He remains in the St. Louis County Jail on $1 million bail.