Appeals panel: No error in Jackson case

Failed escape attempt, gang note at heart of denied appeal
Aug. 06, 2014 @ 01:52 PM

A man convicted of walking into the Lucky Mart on E. Fairfield Road in 2007, demanding money and fatally shooting a clerk is not entitled to a new trial, the N.C. Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday.

The opinion by the appeals panel, released Tuesday, upheld decisions by a High Point trial court to keep Keith Lauchon Jackson Jr. physically restrained during proceedings after a failed escape attempt and to allow into evidence a letter written by the defendant in gang code.
A jury last June found Jackson guilty of first-degree murder in the Oct. 31, 2007, shooting death of 21-year-old Joshua Sweitzer. Jackson was sentenced to life in prison without parole. He gave notice of appeal June 17, 2013, the day of his sentencing.
In his appeal, which was heard June 4, Jackson claimed the trial court’s decision to order additional security after his escape attempt violated his rights.
As he was led out of a holding cell on the first day of his trial, Jackson slipped out of his leg shackles, bolted down a corridor, vaulted about 15 feet over a railing onto the third floor, ran down the stairs and exited the courthouse, according to the N.C. Court of Appeals document. He was caught in a nearby parking lot.
The jurors, who were in the jury room at the time, were told only that there had been a security incident, and the judge reminded them to refrain from reading media coverage. Judge John O. Craig III also ordered a security escort for them as they left the building.
Jackson argued additional security and the jury escort was akin to a statement by the judge that he was “highly dangerous, and therefore probably guilty,” the document said.
The appeals panel determined the trial court did not abuse its discretion or violate Jackson’s rights by ordering the additional security.
“We have no difficulty concluding that use of restraints and additional security measures — even though visible to the jury — were fully justified by the defendant’s behavior at trial and before trial,” the opinion said.
Jackson also argued the court erred in admitting into evidence a letter fellow inmate Matthew Savoy testified was passed between them in jail after their arrests in a string of armed robberies that continued in the area months after Sweitzer’s death.
The letter was written in “Crip code,” a disguised method of writing used by members of the Crips gang and their associates, the Court of Appeals document said. In the note, Jackson wrote “Crip the fool a straight 187,” Savoy testified.
“Mr. Savoy explained that ‘Crip the fool a straight 187’ means to kill someone and that, in context, he understands that defendant was asking him to kill Ronnie Covington,” according to the document, because Covington was talking to police.
Covington admitted to police he and Jackson were hanging out Oct. 31, 2007, discussed ways to get money — including robbery — and went into the Lucky Mart together. He said he was looking at a customer when he heard gunfire, and he and Jackson then fled the store.
In the appeal, Jackson alleged the letter should have been excluded under Rule 403, a federal rule of evidence that allows exclusion of relevant evidence if its probative value is outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice or misleading the jury. Jackson also said questions from the state about his gang involvement should not have been allowed.
The Court of Appeals said the letter was relevant and not unfairly prejudicial because “in it defendant solicited the murder of one of the state’s primary witnesses against him” and “such evidence is highly relevant to defendant’s consciousness of guilt.”
Evidence relating to Jackson’s gang affiliation was necessary to understand the context and relevance of the letter, the opinion said and noted the trial court instructed jury to only consider the gang evidence as an explanation for the note.
“Defendant has failed to show that the trial court abused its discretion in deciding that any unfair prejudice from the contested evidence did not substantially outweigh its probative value,” the opinion said.
Other arguments by Jackson — the trial court did not individually inquire of the jurors if they had avoided media coverage, failed to inform jurors they were not to take into consideration for judgment the fact they had been escorted to their cars and in not excluding evidence of the escape attempt — also were unsuccessful, the court ruled Tuesday.
kzachary@hpe.com | 888-3534 | @HPEkristin