June 28, 2008

Barbara Ann Roberts guilty of capital murder

By Scott Wright

CENTRE — “Darlene Roberts ran for her life; she was chased down like an animal,” Assistant District Attorney Bob Johnson told a jury in the Cherokee County Courthouse on June 27 during closing arguments in the capital murder trial of Barbara Ann Roberts.  

After just over two hours of deliberations, the jury of seven men and five women returned verdicts on three counts. Roberts, the ex-wife of the victim’s husband, was found guilty of shooting Darlene Roberts to death in a pond near the Georgia line two years ago.  

During a sentencing hearing on June 30, the jury deliberated for around 20 minutes before recommending that Barbara Ann Roberts be sentenced to death by lethal injection. According to District Attorney Mike O'Dell, the vote was 11-1 in favor of the death sentence.

Circuit Court Judge David Rains will formally sentence Roberts in August.

The three charges all stemmed from the shooting and included additional charges of robbery, kidnapping with intent to harm, and kidnapping with intent to terrorize. The jury found Roberts guilty of capital murder on the two kidnapping-related charges, and guilty of non-capital murder on the robbery-related charge. 

The prosecution used forensic and crime scene evidence, a videotaped confession, and a withering assault on defense tactics to convince the jury. O’Dell and Johnson wove together a harrowing tale of rage, obsession and premeditated murder that implicated Barbara Ann Roberts and her alleged accomplice, Dr. John Robert Scheiss, III. 

He is expected to be tried for capital murder this fall. 

Over the constant din and rattle of the courthouse’s antiquated air conditioning system, the prosecution team shouted out a narrative that included a roadside abduction gone awry, an alleged extra-marital affair involving Barbara Ann Roberts and her ex-husband, Vernon Roberts, and eight shells fired from a pump-action, 12-gauge shotgun – the final three of which were deadly. 

“This was designed to be the perfect crime,” O’Dell said during his 40-minute closing statement, the final word from the state before Judge Rains gave the case to the jury. 

He explained to the jury how Roberts and Scheiss had begun planning, as early as October 2005, to kidnap, rape and murder Darlene Roberts. The crime, O’Dell said, was to be an act of revenge against Vernon Roberts, with whom Scheiss discovered Barbara Ann Roberts had been having an affair. 

Actually, O’Dell said, Barbara Ann Roberts was a “master manipulator” who convinced the “alcoholic, former neurosurgeon,” who was “hopped-up on drugs,” to help her kill Darlene Roberts so she could reunite with the true object of her affection, her former husband Vernon Roberts. 

After purchasing a Mossberg 500 shotgun from a store in Piedmont last year, evidence showed Scheiss and Roberts spent months practicing target shooting at a gun range in Georgia. Then, familiar with Darlene Roberts’ daily routine, they chose a day in early April to lay in wait alongside a sparsely-traveled dirt road near her home on County Road 941.

"They practiced, they planned, and then like a spider setting her web, she set the trap," O'Dell told the jury.

Feigning car trouble, Scheiss flagged down Darlene Roberts around 5:50 p.m. on April 6, 2006 as she returned home from work. When she stopped, Scheiss forced her from the vehicle as Barbara Ann Roberts, who had been hiding to avoid being recognized, exited their black Dodge pickup and held the shotgun as Scheiss attempted to bound and gag Darlene Roberts. 

O’Dell said it must have been at the moment that she recognized her husband’s ex-wife that Darlene Roberts realized her life was in danger. So she ran, he said. Somehow, she broke free from her restraints and ran. 

“For a few brief moments, Darlene Roberts felt some freedom,” he told the jury. “But it didn’t last long.” 

Barbara Ann Roberts chased after her on foot, firing the 12-gauge. Expended shells found between the roadside and the location where Darlene Roberts was killed confirm the sequence of events, O’Dell said. 

“The first five shots all missed as she chased after her.”

Scheiss gave chase, too, in the victim’s car. He damaged the undercarriage after driving through a field between the road and a small fishing pond where Darlene Roberts sought cover to hide from her assailants. After the shooting, Scheiss hid the car in a shallow ravine and the two fled in the pickup, according to at least one eyewitness who testified during the trial. 

O’Dell next repeated a portion of testimony given earlier in the week by a former county jail trustee, who said she heard the story of Darlene Roberts’ final moments while sharing a cell with Barbara Ann Roberts. 

As Darlene Roberts lay partially hidden in weeds along the edge of the pond, Barbara Ann Roberts “calmly and coolly pumped the shotgun,” firing the final three shells into Darlene Roberts’ body. O’Dell said she was hit twice in the back and once in the head “from a distance of five to seven feet,” killing her instantly. 

Defense attorney Rodney Stallings clung to the fact that the murder weapon was never recovered and that no DNA evidence directly linked his client to the crime scene. But the prosecution convinced the jury with Barbara Ann Roberts’ own jailhouse confession, captured on videotape, which included graphic references to her affair with Vernon Roberts and “one stretch of maniacal laughter”; a piece of the stock of the shotgun, which was recovered from Darlene Roberts’ car; and a pair of corrective lenses traced to Barbara Ann Roberts that were found at the crime scene.

The cell mate said Barbara Ann Roberts told her the recoil from the final shotgun blast knocked the glasses off her face and she didn't realize she was not wearing them until after she and Scheiss had fled the scene.

 In his closing arguments, Stallings told the jury the story of the death of Darlene Roberts was a puzzle with many truths, only one side of which the prosecution chose to present in order to seek the conviction of his client. He insisted Barbara Ann Roberts had never been definitively placed at the crime scene at the time of the murder.

“This puzzle fits,” O’Dell countered as he finished his closing statement. “It’s not one-sided, it’s three-dimensional. And it’s the truth.”