ST. LOUIS — Opening statements began Monday in a nearly decade-old St. Louis murder case in which a man is accused of killing three people, including his infant son.
Eric Lawson, 32, is facing three counts of first-degree murder as well as other charges in St. Louis Circuit Court in the city’s first death penalty trial since 2011.
He is accused of fatally shooting his ex-girlfriend, Breiana Ray, 22, her mother, Gwendolyn Ray, 50, and setting a fire that killed his 10-month-old son Aiden on May 5, 2012. Another of Breiana Ray’s children, 3-year-old McKenzie Ray, was trapped inside their apartment but survived.
Lawson’s trial is being held in a third-floor courtroom but the public, including members of the Ray family, were not allowed inside due to coronavirus-related social distancing measures. The trial was being broadcast via Cisco Webex to a fifth-floor courtroom.
The day began with the video feed silent, as Circuit Judge Michael Noble read instructions to the jury. The audio was eventually restored but an opening statement by Assistant Attorney General Natalie Warner was largely inaudible due to a poor internet connection. Technical problems also cropped up during jury selection last week.
Sheriff’s deputies and an IT employee tried to address the problem, a court official said. (The Post-Dispatch has also requested a transcript of the opening statements.)
Chelsea Merta, a lawyer with Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said that although she’s not an appellate attorney, the inability to hear the trial and a judge’s sealing of the case file from public view for weeks could call “into question whether the defendant’s 6th Amendment right to a public trial has been violated.”
During the court proceedings, Warner at one point said, “Three generations of family. Gone.” Later the phrase “child support” could be heard. “He wanted to destroy her with every (inaudible) he had,” she said later.
Warner told jurors that they would “hear in his own words, how he shot Breiana,” an apparent reference to statements Lawson made to police in which he said he shot both women and then set fires, locking the door on his way out of their apartment at 2145 South Jefferson Avenue, according to charging documents at the time.
The audio connection improved for Cynthia Dryden, Lawson’s lawyer. She said Lawson visited his son that night, then went home.
She said police were at his door at 2 a.m. and he was taken to the police station at 4 a.m., where he was told “that his only hope of redemption was confessing.” She said police told him he could face the death penalty, and fed him details of the crime. She told jurors that Lawson was home at the time of the murders.
The first witness was Vincent Ray, Gwendolyn Ray’s brother, who was working as a police officer when he heard radio calls about a fire at the South Jefferson apartment building. Vincent Ray later identified the bodies.
A trial was attempted once before, in 2019, but prosecutors and defense lawyers were unable to find enough jurors to go forward with Lawson’s trial both because of jurors’ scheduling conflicts and due to their opinions on the death penalty.
There are seven men and five women on the current jury. A court spokesman said 10 are white, one is Black and one was described as “other.”
There are three male alternate jurors and three women. That group is composed of four white jurors and two Black jurors.
Jurors will be sequestered for the duration of the trial.
The Missouri Attorney General’s Office is trying the case because a former employee of St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner previously counseled Lawson when he was a public defender.
The last capital case in the city, in 2011, featured jurors who were unable to decide between life in prison or death for Fredrick Barnes, convicted of the 2007 stabbing death of his friend Dwoyne “Pooh” Ammons and the rape and stabbing of Ammons’ girlfriend. A judge then sentenced Barnes to life without parole.
The last person to be sentenced to death in St. Louis was Martin Link in 1995. Link was convicted of the rape and murder of 11-year-old Elissa Self in 1991. He was executed in 2011.