Court denies new trial in castration case
By John Stevenson : The Herald-Sun
Dec 20, 2005 : 7:43 pm ET
DURHAM -- A Durham man convicted last year of a rare castration charge and other allegedly gang-related crimes will not get a new trial, the state Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday.
Robert Duran Johnson fled during a July 2004 trial in Durham County Superior Court and was found guilty in his absence, later receiving a sentence of up to 20 years after being recaptured.
His unsuccessful appeal hinged on circumstances surrounding the disappearance.
Appellate lawyers said a judge erred by telling jurors that Johnson had "voluntarily absented himself" from the trial. This constituted an "impermissible expression of opinion" by the judge and might have unfairly turned jurors against Johnson, appellate attorneys wrote.
The Court of Appeals disagreed in its Tuesday decision.
It said the trial judge "was not expressing any opinion, but merely explaining the defendant's absence for the record. Additionally, the statement by the trial court did not concern any question of fact to be determined by the jury, and was not a comment on the evidence or the application of the law to the evidence."
The evidence against Johnson "was overwhelming," and he probably would have been convicted even without the judicial comment, the court concluded.
Johnson was found guilty in his absence of kidnapping another man, beating him and shooting off his penis on Easter Sunday 2003.
Veteran court officials said it was Durham's first castration conviction in memory.
The victim testified that physicians sewed his penis back on, but it was not fully functional.
A police investigator and then-Assistant District Attorney John Phillips said last year they believed the victim was shot because he had bolted from the Bloods gang.
Johnson, a known Bloods member, apparently was angry about the perceived betrayal, according to Phillips and the investigator.