For Douglas County defendant Rayshawn Abram, the omission of one word from a written jury instruction led to the overturning of his attempted murder conviction in the 2008 shooting of Sarah Schramm in north Omaha.
In turn, that led to a plea bargain in which prosecutors significantly reduced the charges against Abram.
And ultimately, that one missing word will mean at least 37˝ years shaved off Abram’s sentence.
At most, Abram faces 12˝ actual years in prison when he is sentenced later this month. He had been sentenced to the equivalent of 50 years before the Nebraska Supreme Court overturned his conviction last year.
“It certainly is frustrating,” said Brenda Beadle, chief deputy Douglas County attorney. “It’s disappointing. ... But we weren’t left with many options.”
The high court overturned the conviction because jurors were instructed that Abram’s refusal to testify “must be” taken as an admission of guilt. The written instructions should have said his refusal “must not be” seen as an admission of guilt.
Although District Judge Peter Bataillon had properly included the word “not” when he read the instruction aloud to the jury, the high court sent the case back for another trial.
The ruling left prosecutors scrambling to attain a conviction that had been secured through the testimony of a now-reluctant witness.
The resulting plea bargain and reduced sentence caps a bizarre, much-publicized case.
On June 23, 2008, three members of the Abram family — Rayshawn, Jamaal and Jerrell — went looking for Schramm because they believed she was responsible for the hanging death of her boyfriend and their loved one, Tieres Abram.
Omaha police concluded that Tieres, a 24-year-old aspiring rapper, committed suicide by hanging himself June 30, 2007, and investigators attributed no foul play to Schramm or anyone else.
But in their anguish, some family members spiraled into unending speculation about Tieres’ death — singling out Schramm and eventually producing a widely circulated email that blamed her.
With the one-year anniversary of Tieres’ death approaching, members of the Abram family drove to Forest Lawn Cemetery to visit the grave. Schramm, 28 at the time, already was there, writing in a journal as she sat next to the hillside grave.
Prosecutors’ key witness, Jerrell Abram, told:
» How Jerrell tugged her by her belt and forced her into his SUV. How he kept hollering and asking, “What happened to my cousin?”
» How Rayshawn, Tieres’ brother, ordered Jerrell to drive Schramm to a dead-end street near 54th Street and Sorensen Parkway.
» How Jamaal escorted Schramm out of the SUV and down a darkened road, then shot her three times.
» How they left her for dead — and Rayshawn ordered no one to talk about it again.
Paired with Schramm’s story of survival, Jerrell’s testimony proved powerful. It led to convictions and identical 50-year sentences for both Jamaal, the gunman, and Rayshawn.
Then came the Nebraska Supreme Court decision last summer in which the judges ruled that the missing word deprived Rayshawn of fair jury deliberations.
Prosecutors were faced with rebuilding what had been a difficult case — including trying to persuade their key witness to testify again. Jerrell Abram was less than thrilled about the prospect of taking the stand again against his family, Beadle said.
And prosecutors were worried. They had no physical evidence to link Rayshawn Abram to the scene. Only Jerrell confirmed what Schramm had seen: Rayshawn’s car at the scene.
“Our whole case was Jerrell,” Beadle said.
She said prosecutors simply didn’t know what Jerrell would say when called to the stand. Had Jerrell recanted his testimony, prosecutors could have gone after him for reneging on his plea agreement. But Rayshawn still could have walked.
After consulting with Schramm — who now lives out of state under a different name — prosecutors decided to secure a lesser conviction against Rayshawn rather than risk an acquittal. They reduced Rayshawn’s charges from attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder and weapon use to attempted first-degree assault and being an accessory to a felony.
Rayshawn pleaded guilty to those charges.
Omaha attorney Glenn Shapiro, who represented Rayshawn, said the plea bargain wasn’t easy for Rayshawn either.
The 31-year-old rapper maintains his innocence and wanted to take the case to trial. But he didn’t want to risk the possibility of another virtual life sentence.
“No one knew what Jerrell was going to do,” Shapiro said. “If he shows up and screws (prosecutors), Rayshawn may walk. But if he testifies as he has before, it could be tough for Rayshawn to get an acquittal.”
The deal comes with one irony: Once resentenced, Rayshawn now will be scheduled to get out of prison some time in 2022. That’s a few years before the scheduled release of Jerrell, the man who originally helped prosecutors put Rayshawn there.
“I can tell you that Rayshawn is not thrilled to still be looking at a lengthy prison term,” Shapiro said. “But it’s a lot better than where he started.”
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