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Jurors say killer's iPhone sealed guilty verdict

STORY BY MEG LAUGHLIN (Week of October 9, 2014)
Jury foreman Rollin (used by permission)

While the jury weighing the fate of Henry Lee Jones, Jr. found him guilty of the murder of Brian Simpson in near record time, the key evidence that took most of them to a place “beyond reasonable doubt” was not presented until near the end of the trial and came from Jones’ cell phone, according to interviews with four jurors. 

“The cell phone data on top of the other evidence is what nailed it in my mind. But I told myself I would keep an open mind to see what the defense had. When they didn’t have much, I knew what I thought,” said juror Tasha Solis, an urgent care nurse.

“After the cell phone data I couldn’t see it any other way even though I tried to,” said juror Jim Gagnon, an Orchid Island security officer.

“I believed Darius Robinson (the accomplice) who testified that Jones had the gun and shot Mr. Simpson, but what confirmed it for me was the GPS information on Jones’ cell phone and the email on the phone about the stolen coin,” said juror Stacy Smith, an orthopedic physician’s assistant.

Jury foreman Kevin Rollin summed up the effect of the phone evidence on the jury: “Not a single piece of evidence clinched it in our minds. It was everything together. But the cell phone data took it over the top, beyond reasonable doubt,” said Rollin, a family law attorney.

The tipping point, many jurors said, came on Thursday, the last full day of testimony, when sheriff’s office detective Mike Scott took the stand and talked about data retrieved from Jones’ iPhone.

On Nov. 8, 2011, nine days before the murder, the pearl-handled revolver used in the murder was stolen from the home of Larry Tyndall, along with a TV and other possessions. The gun was never found, but the TV and other Tyndall belongings were found in Jones‘ bedroom.

Defense attorneys had cautioned jurors that possession of the stolen items did not mean Jones stole the goods or the gun that killed Simpson – he could have fenced them for someone else.

But on Thursday in court, cell phone data showed that the evening of the Tyndall burglary, Jones texted the guy who transported the goods to his bedroom: “Is the TV in the van?”

Also, cell phone data on Jones’ iPhone an hour before Brian Simpson was killed, showed that he was heading north in the direction of the Simpson home. Then, more data at 6:05 p.m., about 55 minutes before the shooting, showed the phone was near the Barber Bridge,  five minutes from the Simpson home. 

Six hours after Simpson was killed and a 1996 Liberty Eagle silver dollar was missing from the house, cell phone data showed that Jones emailed a coin dealer at 1:06 a.m., “I have a 1996 Liberty Eagle silver dollar. Is it worth anything?”

And, at 6:06 a.m., 11 hours after Simpson was killed, a photo appeared on Jones’ phone of his bedroom, even though he had told police he was out of town the day of the murder and the day after.

It had been a long, intense week for the jury even though the 15 jurors picked for the murder trial clicked from the beginning.

“I can say for myself – and probably everyone on the jury – that it changed the way we see the legal system as well as how we see our community,” said juror Solis.

The eight women and seven men – 12 jurors and three alternates – chosen by prosecutors and defense attorneys out of a pool of 94 Indian River County residents included a pilot, a family law attorney, a jail maintenance worker, a golf pro, an orthopedic physician’s assistant, an English teacher, a retired IRS administrator, a landscape company manager, a graduate student, a security guard and an urgent care nurse.  

“During jury selection, we heard each other answer questions. So, we knew from the start that we were a good cross-section of the community and a serious, thoughtful group,” said juror Gagnon.

During the selection process, they told attorneys that they realized the burden of proof was on prosecutors to build a case that convinced them of guilt. If not, they all said they would acquit.

“Liberty is a precious thing not to be taken lightly,” said juror Tatyana Clayter, an English teacher. 

They all said they knew something about the shooting of Brian Simpson in his Central Beach home prior to being selected.

“It’s difficult to have lived in this community and not have the incident come up at some point,” said juror Rollin, echoing the words of all the jurors.

As a result, Jones got a jury not oblivious to the crime. Still, jurors said they listened and weighed the evidence over and over, moving very slowly.

“I can tell you I lost a lot of sleep thinking through things at night and again in the early morning,” said juror Smith.

“I would tear things apart and then tear them apart again, looking at everything from all possible angles,” said Gagnon.

When the trial began and witnesses took the stand, jurors could not discuss the trial with each other or at home with family. During breaks at the trial, they talked, instead, about their kids, what they had for dinner, their jobs, their summer vacations, their plans for the weekend.

“We talked about things that helped us know each other on a basic human level,” said Solis.

By Wednesday evening, after three long days together listening to witnesses and talking during breaks, they felt like good friends, they said, and hatched a plan to surprise retired teacher Lilian Stanford with a birthday party for her 68th birthday on Thursday.

Rollin brought cupcakes and English teacher Clayter led them in singing, while Stanford, the only African American on the jury, thanked them over and over and wiped her eyes.

But, aside from the birthday, Thursday was special because of the decisive cellphone evidence presented that day.

After a brief case put on by the defense – “they did the best anyone could with nothing,” said Rollin – closing arguments followed on Friday and jurors went to the jury room at about 12:30 p.m. to pick a foreman and begin deliberations.

They unanimously chose Rollin to be the foreman. Then, they took a poll before discussing evidence, and all jurors said they believed Jones was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, explaining in detail what evidence made them think so. 

There was no need, they agreed, to pore over the physical evidence again. They had paid close attention and taken notes. They knew the case so well that – even with bathroom breaks, ordering lunch and searching for the misplaced verdict form – they were ready to fill it out 45 minutes after entering the jury room.

“Not a single juror had a smidgen of doubt,” said Rollin. “While we were relieved, it was a sad and somber moment.”

After the verdict was announced they returned to the jury room and poured out their souls. They talked about 26-year-old Jones, saying they hoped he would show remorse and become a reformed man in prison.

They told each other that they believed the testimony of his accomplice, 19-year-old Darius Robinson who testified against Jones, and prayed that Darius would have some kind of meaningful life after prison.

“Our hope was for redemption for both of them,” said Rollin.

Most of all, though, jurors said their hearts went out to the Simpson family – that the verdict would be a step toward healing.

Then, they shook hands and hugged, telling each other what a great learning experience it was and what great mutual respect they had for one another.

“We all walked out of that courthouse feeling so proud to be a part of Vero Beach,” said foreman Rollin.