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Jason Roberts

Other South Carolina Cases
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On the morning of January 10, 1992, 56-year-old Bobby Marler was found beaten to death in his pawnshop, Bobby’s Trading Post, which was located across from a Walmart distribution center in Laurens, South Carolina.

Marler was known to carry large amounts of cash, so his missing wallet led police to believe he had been robbed.

The crime was still unsolved a year later when, in February 1993, Thomas Whitehead, Jr. told the police that 18-year-old Jason Roberts and Jaime McAlister were responsible. Whitehead claimed that Roberts had admitted that he and McAlister went to Marler’s pawnshop to buy marijuana, but ending up robbing and killing him instead.

In November 1993, Whitehead said that Roberts and McAlister beat Marler with a baseball bat and used the money they stole to buy cocaine. Whitehead said he had seen a silver baseball bat in the hatchback of a car that belonged to Matt Cagle, a friend of Roberts and McAlister.

In February 1994—two years after the murder—Whitehead made a third statement that again implicated Roberts and McAlister. However, police soon discovered that McAlister was in jail at the time of the murder and could not have been involved.

After Laurens County Sheriff’s deputies promised Whitehead he would not be charged with the killing of Marler, Whitehead said he was involved in the murder with Roberts and Cagle.

In March 1995, Roberts and Cagle were charged with first-degree murder and armed robbery.

Roberts went to trial in Laurens County Court of General Sessions in October 1995. Whitehead testified he, Roberts, and Cagle were drinking beer at Roberts’ home and in Cagle’s car on January 9, 1992. When they needed money to buy more alcohol, they decided to pawn Roberts’ .22-caliber rifle.

Whitehead told the jury that he and Roberts went into the pawnshop while Cagle stayed in the car. When Marler opened his wallet to pay for the rifle, they saw he had a large amount of cash. Roberts then pushed Marler to the floor and beat him with the rifle butt. Whitehead said they grabbed the wallet and fled.

Whitehead said the three of them spent the night at Roberts’ home. The next day, on January 10, 1992, they took the rifle to the home of Cagle’s father where they melted it down in a smelting furnace.

Whitehead admitted that he had falsely accused McAlister and had given several false accounts of the crime.

The prosecution presented testimony from Gary Gleen, who said that he was incarcerated at the Broad River Correctional Facility when Roberts was held awaiting trial. Gleen said that his cell was 10 feet from Roberts’ cell and that they were able to talk quietly so that other inmates would not hear them. Gleen said that during one conversation when guards were not around Roberts said, “Yeah, well, I killed a man but they ain’t got nothing on me.”

Gleen told the jury that Roberts said that Whitehead had implicated him, but that he was going to “beat the crime,” because witnesses would testify that he was in school at the time. Gleen recounted how Roberts had “a gleam in his eye” when he described how he killed Marler because he refused to buy the rifle and how they melted the gun down the day after the murder.

Roberts’ mother testified for the defense that Roberts was in night school at the time of the murder and that she picked him up after school that evening. The school did not have attendance records for Roberts, however, because he was auditing classes. She also testified that Whitehead and Cagle did not spend the night at the Roberts home.

Jaime McAlister’s mother, Angela McAlister, testified that sometime after the murder, Whitehead visited Jaime, who was ill. She testified that she was in the hallway when she heard Whitehead say that “him and his daddy” had murdered “the old fart… out in front of the Walmart.”

William Patterson testified for the defense that he operated the smelting furnace on Cagle’s property that Whitehead claimed was used to destroy the rifle. Patterson testified that the furnace was not installed until March 1992—two months after Whitehead said the gun was melted. A PNG Propane employee testified that he installed the tank on the smelting furnace on March 17, 1992 and that was the only source of fuel for the furnace.

Cagle testified that he was not involved in the crime. He said he went to a birthday party in Greenville, South Carolina on the night Marler was killed and spent the night there because he was too drunk to drive home. Several other witnesses testified and corroborated Cagle’s testimony, including the person whose birthday was celebrated that night.

On October 201, 1995, the jury convicted Roberts of first-degree murder and armed robbery. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Whitehead later pled guilty to misprision of a felony and was released after three years in prison. The charges against Cagle were dismissed prior to his trial.

In 2000, after his convictions were upheld on appeal, Roberts filed a post-conviction motion for a new trial. Roberts claimed that his trial attorney had provided an ineffective defense by failing to present evidence showing the layout of the cells at the facility where Gleen and Roberts were incarcerated.

In support of his motion, Roberts’ presented prison records and a map of the facility. He argued that Gleen was housed too far away from Roberts to have had a covert conversation, and that with as many as 70 inmates in that unit, there was far too much noise to permit any quiet conversations.

The motion also claimed that Roberts’ trial attorney had failed to object and move for a mistrial when the jury sent a question to the judge while in deliberation asking “who was on trial.” In response, the judge merely instructed the jury that Roberts was on trial.

At a hearing on the motion, Ricky Higgs testified that he and Roberts were next door to each other in separate cells at the time of the alleged conversations between Gleen and Roberts. Higgs testified that Gleen was housed more than 30 feet away from Roberts’ cell and that the noise was “deafening” at times.

Higgs said that he did hear Roberts and Gleen yelling back and forth, but that Roberts never confessed to the crime.

The defense also presented a video of the jail unit showing that Gleen’s cell was actually about 100 feet away from Roberts’ cell. At the hearing, Roberts’ trial attorney conceded that he was unprepared for Gleen’s testimony and had no evidence to rebut his claim that Roberts had confessed.

The defense also presented witnesses who said that Whitehead told numerous people that he and his father had committed the crime.

In February 2004, the court granted the motion for new trial and vacated Roberts’ convictions. The judge ruled that Roberts’ trial attorney had provided an inadequate legal defense by failing to ask for a mistrial over the jury’s question about who was on trial and by failing to present the evidence that undercut Gleen’s testimony. Roberts was released on bond.

In September 2004, the South Carolina Supreme Court upheld the trial judge’s ruling. On March 24, 2005, the prosecution dismissed the charges.

Roberts later filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Laurens County and a legal malpractice lawsuit against his trial lawyer. Both suits were unsuccessful.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 9/20/2016
State:South Carolina
County:Laurens
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery
Reported Crime Date:1992
Convicted:1995
Exonerated:2005
Sentence:Life
Race:Caucasian
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:16
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No