The judge in the trial of a man accused of robbing and killing a Mercer University basketball player during a drug deal two years ago declared a mistrial Tuesday after an apparent prosecutorial misstep during opening statements.
Assistant District Attorney Sandra Matson, in her opening remarks to jurors in Bibb County Superior Court, spoke of how defendant Damion Henderson and his friend and alleged accomplice were into “guns and... dope.”
Henderson’s lawyer, Franklin J. Hogue, objected to the comment, saying the remark implied other criminal activity that Henderson was not accused of. Hogue asked for a mistrial, which was later granted.
Jibri Bryan, 23, a guard on the Mercer hoops squad, was shot to death in his car during an ill-fated drug deal outside a downtown Macon Flash Foods store in 2016.
Before the mistrial was declared, the most revealing public details yet of the high-profile slaying had begun to emerge.
Bryan fired three shots into a man named Jarvis Miller, Henderson’s alleged partner in crime, when the duo tried to rob Bryan of about $300 cash while selling him phony Xanax, authorities have said.
Henderson, 36, a convicted armed robber from south Atlanta who earlier this century spent a dozen years behind bars for holding up a Jonesboro pawn shop when he was 18, stands accused of helping Miller rob and kill Bryan.
Miller, 26, pleaded guilty last week to an armed-robbery charge in the case and was sentenced to 20 years in exchange for his testimony against Henderson.
In his opening statement, Henderson’s lawyer, Franklin J. Hogue, referred to Miller’s sentence as a “sweetheart of a deal” because evidence may show that Miller was the one who fired the shot that killed Bryan.
Matson, the prosecutor, in her opening words to jurors, described the scenario that ended the Bryan’s life as one where “all hell broke loose.”
It was Groundhog Day 2016, about 4 o’clock on a dreary afternoon. Rain was threatening.
Matson said Miller and Henderson, who were buddies, met up and rode to the Flash Foods at the corner of Forsyth and College streets, where Miller had earlier that day had a chance encounter with Bryan.
Miller and Bryan, according to Matson, had exchanged phone numbers on the prospect of possibly doing a drug deal.
Matson said Miller had afterward told Henderson about “a sweet lick,” an easy mark for robbery, that they could pull on Bryan, a graduate student from Savannah who was studying business.
Matson said the two alleged bandits, riding in a borrowed Nissan Sentra, arranged their meeting with Bryan and pulled in beside Bryan’s Chevy Monte Carlo on the College Street side of the gas mart.
Bryan, Miller has said, wanted to buy Xanax. There was also talk that Bryan would sell them marijuana.
Miller got out of the Sentra, walked over and sat down in the front passenger seat of Bryan’s car, Matson said.
Bryan was in the driver’s seat, and the deal was on. But Bryan soon realized that what Miller had given him was not Xanax. Cops have said it may have been herbal pills.
“He knows they’re pulling a fast one,” Matson told jurors, adding that Bryan asked for his money back.
Miller, though, pulled a .380 pistol, Matson said, “to show muscle.”
In a flash, when Miller glanced away, Bryan pulled a gun of his own, a 9mm pistol.
Bryan fired three shots at Miller, one of which struck Miller in the side of the neck, the prosecutor said.
Miller got off one shot before his pistol jammed, but the bullet he fired hit Bryan in the head, Matson said.
Meanwhile, Henderson had been standing outside the driver’s side of Bryan’s Monte Carlo. He reached in the window, grabbed Bryan’s gun and shot him in the neck, Matson said.
The wounded Miller ran, but was caught by police about a block away near Orange Street. He later confessed and told on Henderson.
Henderson then took off in the Sentra, which he ditched on Orange, where Miller’s mother lived, and fled home to Atlanta, authorities have said.
Moments after the shooting, Matson said, Henderson spoke to Miller by phone and told him, “Don’t worry, bro. I took care of him. I domed him... shot him in the head.”
And for that, she told the jury, Henderson “needs to pay his price.”
After opening statements, when jurors were sent to lunch, Judge Howard Z. Simms convened with the prosecution and the defense. A couple of hours later, just after 3 p.m., he declared a mistrial. Though he did not elaborate, the mistrial-related trouble arose about 10 minutes into Matson’s opening.
She was speaking of Miller and Henderson, how they were buddies, how they’d met in Atlanta when the two may have lived on the same street.
“They ran together,” she said, adding that when Miller took the stand he would tell jurors “the extent of what they were doing. It involved guns and it involved dope.”
Twelve seconds later, Hogue asked the judge if the lawyers could approach the bench.
The jury was sent out and Hogue moved for a mistrial on grounds that the prosecutor’s suggestion that Miller and Henderson were involved in prior criminal behavior — “bad-acts evidence” — was something the defense hadn’t been told about.
Matson argued that her statement should be admissible because there was evidence on Miller’s phone “that he corresponds with Damion Henderson prior to [the killing] about dope and about a gun — in particular, this gun in this case.”
Simms, the judge, said the mention of drugs and guns in Atlanta was problematic, that the prosecutor was “clearly talking about other acts. … You said they were running around doing something with drugs and guns. … That clearly implies some other criminal activity. That’s basic logic.”
The judge for the moment overruled Hogue’s objection and called the jury back in, but not before Matson asked for clarification.
“Are we not going to talk about dope dealing?” she asked.
“We already have,” Simms boomed. “You just did. What do you want me to do, try to put that toothpaste back in the tube?”