Quick jury finds Black guilty

Published 11:56 pm Thursday, August 27, 2015

Verdict closes 21-year-old case of country store owner

Jurors in Eugene Black’s murder trial deliberated less than 30 minutes Thursday afternoon before finding him guilty of attempted robbery and felony murder.

Black was one of four people charged in 2013 with the 1994 murder of James “Nibby” Barton. The arrests were made after a Cold Case Task Force reopened the murder investigation in 2013.

The verdict came in the early afternoon, not long after jurors returned from a lunch break, following more than two hours of proceedings Thursday morning.

Before closing their case, the state put James Cain back on the stand as a rebuttal witness, as well as a man for whom he had worked briefly.

Earlier in the week, Cain, who is serving time in the Covington County Jail for multiple charges, testified that while working for James “Bubba” Ward in 2013, he saw Black at the junk yard and had a conversation with him in which Black confessed he had been a part of Barton’s death.

When Black testified in his own defense, he denied having made the comments to Cain.

Thursday morning, Chief Assistant District Attorney Grace Jeter documented with Pugh and Sons’ records that both men were there on the same day in 2013, while the Cold Case Task Force was investigating the murder. Ward testified that he saw the two men talking, but did not hear them.

On cross examination from defense attorney Peter Bush, Cain said his sentence was reduced nine and a half years for his testimony.

In closing arguments, Jeter told the jurors they could take the pieces of the puzzle presented in two days of testimony and “sort them out,” before she detailed the state’s theory of events.

Jeter said the defendant needed money.

“He and Eugene Dean and Sandra Lynn came up with a plan to get it from Mr. Barton,” she said. “They took the two women, Sandra Brooks and Sheila Walker.”

“Just in case that didn’t work, he took his gun,” Jeter said, adding that the state believes Barton was shot in the chest as he bent over to get a gun he kept under the counter.

“They panicked and got out of there as fast as they could, before anyone came in,” she said. “They waited to see what would happen and they just kept their mouths shut.”

Jeter told jurors the defendant and others “went to Mr. Barton’s store to commit a robbery. And when they left, Mr. Barton was dead.

“The law says it doesn’t matter which one of them actually pulled the trigger,” she said. “And so whether the defendant sitting there is the one who put that gun in Mr. Barton’s face or someone else, when Mr. Barton was shot to death, the defendant was guilty of murder.”

Bush argued that Black was being prosecuted on purely circumstantial evidence.

“Even if you take the circumstantial evidence of Sandra Lynn’s testimony, her testimony is he had a bulge in his pocket. That’s her evidence that he had gone and killed Mr. Barton.

“My Barton had $8,000 in his back pocket,” Bush said. “Clearly, he was not robbed. Certainly this is not the kind of evidence you use to convict man of cold blood murder.”

Lynn, who also was charged with robbery and murder in the case, previously pleaded to conspiracy to commit robbery. She testified this week that she and Black were a couple at the time of the murder, and that they needed money. She said she said to a group that included Black, co-defendant Shelia Walker Williams, her sister Shelia Ellison Brooks, and her stepbrother, Eugene Dean, “Mr. Barton has money.”

Barton regularly cashed payroll checks, and was known to have large sums of cash at his store.

She testified that later in the day the group returned and that Black “had a bulge in his pocket.”

“If Mr. Black’s convicted, whoever really did it is still out there,” Bush told jurors.

“Circumstantial evidence is used often, but it’s not evidence you see in this case,” Bush said. “The evidence we had here is Eugene Black, 20 years after allegedly killing a man, for no apparent reason, decides he’s gonna tell Jimmy Cain, ‘Yea, I killed him.’ ”

“In this case, I’ve run across something I’ve rarely seen,” Bush said. “There’s not been one bit of testimony that anybody’s ever seen Mr. Black push, shove, or hit anybody with a stick. Not one witness testified they’d seen him do anything violent.”

He encouraged jurors to consider “who has something to gain by their testimony.”

Each of the four people charged in Barton’s murder also was charged with robbery. When Presiding Circuit Judge Ashley McKathan charged the jury in Black’s case, he told them he was taking the charge of robbery in the first degree out of consideration, “as it has not been shown if he was robbed.”

He did allow the jury to consider the lesser included offense of attempted robbery, of which they found Black guilty.

Attempted Robbery I is a Class B felony ordinarily punishable by two to 20 years in prison. Murder is a Class A felony punishable by up to life in prison.

District Attorney Walt Merrell, who assisted Jeter with the prosecution, said in a statement released Thursday afternoon that because of Black’s prior criminal history, the ordinary ranges would not apply.

“We expect that he’ll receive nothing less than life in prison,” Merrell stated. Sentencing is set for Oct. 16, 2015.