Jury convicts Roberts of second-degree manslaughter

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By Forrest Berkshire, Editor

A jury returned a verdict of second-degree manslaughter Thursday evening in the murder trial of Alexander Cole Roberts.

The charge is two rungs below murder, and will likely mean he is eligible for parole in just a few months after he is credited for time served in jail while awaiting trial.

The jury deliberated for about three hours on a range of charges from murder to reckless homicide or acquittal.

The verdict came at the end of the fourth day of the trial for the slaying of Rasheed Wickliffe, who was stabbed to death in Bloomfield on Dec. 1, 2015.

Following the conviction, Roberts’ attorneys came to an agreement of 10 years for the manslaughter charge, the maximum sentence, and five years for tampering, also the max for that charge. The agreement included that the sentences would run concurrently for a total of 10 years, thereby avoiding the possibility of a jury recommending they run consecutively for a total of 15 during the sentencing phase of the trial. Roberts also waived any right to appeal the conviction.

He will be eligible for parole after serving 20 percent, or two years. He has already been incarcerated for about 16 months.

Roberts took the stand to testify in his own defense and offer his version of what transpired in the dark, rainy early-morning hours after a nightlong search for someone to purchase marijuana from. The defense characterized him several times as a “scared kid” who found himself in over his head during a drug deal.

Prosecutors alleged Roberts was looking to “hit a lick” on someone, slang for robbing somebody. They presented text messages where Roberts wrote about looking for a victim and his intention to “Scare little wannabe boys that want to be kingpins.”

One of those text exchanges was between a mutual friend — Roberts and Wickliffe did not know one another — where the friend, John Cooper, warned Roberts that Wickliffe might try to rob him. Cooper testified in the trial he was trying to scare Roberts away from the deal out of concern for Wickliffe because of Roberts’ earlier texts about wanting to rob someone.

The defense claimed Roberts was acting in self-defense and that he was concerned after receiving the text from Cooper.

Many of the events that night were largely undisputed. Wickliffe and a friend met Roberts in front of the Bloomfield Post Office. Roberts handed over less money than agreed upon and a “junky” cell phone and Wickliffe passed him the drugs. Roberts started to walk away when Wickliffe realized he had been shorted and got out of the car to chase him.

They ran into an alley and ended up in Roberts’ neighbor’s yard, where a confrontation ensued. Roberts on the stand said Wickliffe tackled him and took him to the ground, then Roberts pulled out a knife he had brought with him to the buy.

“I was just trying to get him off me,” Roberts said. “He was trying to kill me. I was just defending myself.”

Roberts said he thought Wickliffe had a gun on him when he was chasing him. Wickliffe had brought an inoperable pistol, and the person who drove him to the meet, Trenton Lovvorn, testified the pistol was never in sight.

But Roberts testified he had seen the pistol, and that Wickliffe had made sure he saw it. Wickliffe did not bring the gun with him when he chased Roberts, but Roberts said he did not know that.

The lead prosecutor, Jeffrey Prather with the Kentucky Attorney General’s Office, urged the jury not to believe Roberts’ claim that he had seen the pistol. He said Roberts claimed self-defense from the first day, but had never mentioned the gun until the trial.

“He never says anything about the gun — ever — until today. That’s kind of important in self-defense,” Prather said during closing arguments. “Someone points a gun at you, the first thing you’re going to go is, ‘He pointed a gun at me.’ ”

The jury itself asked 82 questions of the prosecutors and defense, more than any attorney or the judge in the case had ever experienced.

In finding Roberts guilty of second-degree manslaughter, as opposed to first degree, it ruled that he acted with “wanton” disregard for the consequences of his actions, rather than intent to cause harm or death.

“We’re very disappointed, very disappointed,” Wickliffe’s father, Ricky Wickliffe, said. “We went into this sort of expecting it.”

Ricky said he faulted the judge in the case, Nelson Circuit Court Judge Jack Seay, for excluding some evidence found at the scene and subsequent events. The family had sought to have the judge removed from the case in months past.

“We’re just disappointed,” the victim’s mother, Gwenn Wickliffe, said through tears. “I fought for justice for my son, because he deserved it. You know, he’s not perfect, he was involved, but he did not deserve to be murdered for $40.”

Brian Butler, Roberts’ defense attorney, said the whole affair was tragic on many levels.

“Obviously, we’re very pleased with the jury’s verdict, but this is a tough case, a tragedy for Alex and his family, and certainly a tragedy for the Wickliffes. My heart goes out to them.

“I think this jury took this case very seriously. They asked more questions than any jury I have ever been involved with, and I think they reached a fair resolution. They took into account Alex made mistakes on Dec. 1, 2015, and Mr. Wickliffe made mistakes on the same day, and it’s just a horrible situation for everybody. Nobody is a winner.”