Jurors urged to use common sense in Rocky Mount murder trial
Posted September 27, 2011
Windsor, N.C. — Prosecutors trying a Rocky Mount man for first-degree murder say jurors must use reason and common sense as they hear evidence that, they say, will prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he killed a woman more than two years ago and left her body in a rural area of Edgecombe County.
"We are not going to start by telling you what every witness is going to say. You need to listen to them," Assistant District Attorney Steve Graham said Tuesday during opening statements of Antwan Maurice Pittman's trial.
Pittman, 33, is accused of killing 28-year-old Taraha Shenice Nicholson, who disappeared in February 2009. Hunters found her remains in a wooded area near Seven Bridges Road on March 7, 2009.
Prosecutors' opening statements were brief, with Graham providing no theories about what might have led to Nicholson's death.
"It's important in this case, whatever you hear, to keep your reason and common sense throughout this entire proceeding, regardless to what you hear," Graham said. "Do not take your reason or common sense, at any time, and simply throw them away."
Defense attorneys, however, said Pittman met Nicholson in February 2009 while she was working as a prostitute but that he did not hurt her.
Pittman, attorney Tom Sallenger said, will tell jurors about that encounter, which ended with him dropping her off where he had met her.
"You must keep an open mind and let this young man tell you about his rendezvous with his young lady and about what happened," Sallenger said. "Listen to him, and see what you believe about this case, because ladies and gentleman, there will not be one single person that will come forward and be able to say that they saw this man do anything to Taraha Nicholson."
Pittman was arrested for Nicholson's death in September 2009, but authorities have said that he is a suspect or person of interest in the deaths of at least seven of nine other women fitting similar descriptions whose bodies were found in the same area of Edgecombe County over a four-year span.
A 10th woman is still missing.
Extensive coverage of the investigation forced the trial from Edgecombe County to Bertie County, where the jury of six men and six women was seated Monday.
Nicholson's mother wiped tears from her eyes on Tuesday as Dr. William Oliver, a medical examiner, showed jurors autopsy photos. He testified that her daughter suffered injuries that were consistent with strangulation. Nicholson also had several long linear scratches on her abdomen, which Oliver said, appeared to him, as if she had been dragged.
Nicholson had likely been dead for no more than three days when her remains were discovered, Oliver said.
"She was lying on her right side with her arms up over her head," Edgecombe County sheriff's investigator Lt. Gene Harrell testified. "She was completely nude with the exception of a bra that was pulled up over her breast. She was wearing a pair of white, footie-type socks."
Investigators collected several pieces of clothing from the crime scene, including a purple bracelet, black T-shirt and black panties, Harrell said, as well as samples of hair and bodily fluids from Nicholson.
Erin Ermish, a lab analyst for the State Bureau of Investigation, said she found a large amount of sperm from a vaginal swabbing that led her to conclude that Nicholson had had intercourse within 24 hours of her death.
But on cross-examination, Ermish said that her testing couldn't determine whose sperm it was. Defense attorneys also pointed out that it could have been from anyone, not just Pittman.
"Do you know how many people she saw before Mr. Pittman or after Mr. Pittman in her field of work?" attorneys asked.
"No," Ermish said. "There is no other way to know."