Jurors find Robinson guilty of first-degree murder, robbery

Published 12:05 am Tuesday, March 1, 2016

By Shavonne Walker


It took jurors less than 20 minutes to return a guilty verdict for Maurice Robinson, who was on trial for the 2012 murder of Z&H Mart store owner Hecham Abualeinan.

Prosecutors have said Robinson, 37, planned and helped carry out three robberies, the last of which led to the death of the 59-year-old Syrian native.

The father of two was in his store on Dec. 10, 2012, when Christopher Watson walked in with a handgun and wearing a Halloween mask. He demanded money from the store owner and fired a warning shot into the air.

Abualeinan told the gunman he was not alone and that his family was in the back. Watson shot the man after, he later told investigators, the store owner threw a plastic bag holder at him.

Watson told investigators if it wasn’t for his “friend” Maurice Robinson, he’d never have committed such a crime.

Watson, 26, pleaded guilty in 2015 to killing the store owner and the robbery. Co-defendant Kevin Canzator, 23, also pleaded guilty for his involvement.

Since Feb. 8, jurors have listened to witnesses testify about the robbery and subsequent murder. Prosecutors have said Robinson planned the robberies, provided a handgun and instructions to Watson and Canzator, and helped cover up the crimes.

Robinson’s attorneys, Darrin Jordan and Jay Vannoy of Wilkes County, have said Robinson has a less than average IQ and a number of developmental disabilities that would have prevented him from carrying out such a crime.

The decision

Jurors found Robinson guilty of first-degree murder and three counts of felony robbery with a dangerous weapon. Judge Joe Crosswhite sentenced Robinson to life in prison without the possibility of parole for first-degree murder and 16 years to just over 21 years for the robbery offenses. He consolidated the first two robbery offenses and made the final one consecutive to the others.

“The state did an excellent job presenting the evidence and it was pretty simple to make a decision. We were all unanimous,” juror Brian Doyle said after the trial.

He said while the trial itself took a long time, he believed the right verdict was achieved fairly quickly.

Doyle said he didn’t believe Robinson’s apology was sincere, although Jordan, his attorney, disagrees.

Doyle said his prayers are with the Abualeinan family and he wishes the best for them.

“It’s a shame when anybody loses their life, especially tragically like that,” he said.

Another juror, who did not want to be identified, said she was also sorry for the family’s loss.

“It was a tough case, and was difficult because of what we were facing. There weren’t a lot of surprises,” Jordan said.

When asked if the justice system works, Jordan said, “yes, the justice system works, but it’s more complex than that. There are lots of things that are considered to be law and you wonder why they’re that way. Robbery is still robbery. Murder is still murder. There are minute things that you’re not able to see that you still have to worry about.”

Jordan said he’d hoped jurors would understand that since the age of 5, Robinson was declared to have an intellectual disability and that diagnosis did not change more than 30 years later.

Jordan said Robinson gave notice of his intent to appeal.

“Today is the last piece of closure for the family from the criminal justice system,” said Rowan District Attorney Brandy Cook.

“By all accounts, he was beloved by his community, and this case includes a tragic set of circumstances. No verdict will bring him back to life,” Cook said.

Judge Crosswhite told the family he admired their courage and bravery for being in the courtroom.

“We can’t undo what’s been done here,” Crosswhite said.

Zina Abualeinan, the daughter of Hecham Abualeinan, spoke briefly, saying how hard it had been to go to court.

She thanked the court and judge for their time and patience.

Robinson initially chose to say nothing at the close of the trial, but quickly changed his mind.

“I’m sorry this tragedy happened. I can’t take back the things that have been done, what my friends have done, but I’m sorry,” Robinson said as he stood and faced the Abualeinan family.

Three years ago

Law enforcement investigators said the men robbed Neighborhood Market on West Horah Street on Nov. 22, 2012, and again Dec. 5, 2012. In the second robbery of the store, Canzator pretended to be a customer in order to get Watson inside the locked door.

The men were going to rob Z&H Mart the same Dec. 5 night, but Robinson’s girlfriend, Ashley Bentley, refused to drive them to the store out of fear. Bentley testified she was scared of Robinson, whom she’d dated on and off for years.

Robinson came up with another plan, prosecutors said, to rob the Mooresville Road store a few days later. Watson robbed the store Dec. 10, 2012, as he’d done in the other robberies, wearing a Halloween mask and carrying a gun that Robinson borrowed.

Vannoy told jurors during closing statements that there were four things true about the crime: Christoper Watson took the gun into the West Horah Street store on Nov. 22, he went back to the store Dec. 5, he took a gun into Z&H Mart Dec. 10, and he murdered Hecham Abualeinan.

“Maurice Robinson did not shoot Mr. Abualeinan,” Vannoy said.

He recounted the events that led up to the murder.

Vannoy said Watson, Canzator, Bentley and Mike Miller, a friend who allowed them to burn clothes used in the robbery, all had something to gain.

Vannoy said they all testified against his client in order to keep themselves from going to prison. Watson and Canzator accepted plea agreements. Bentley and Miller received probation for their involvement. Both Bentley and Miller testified against Robinson.

Cook, the district attorney, said contrary to what psychologist Ginger Calloway said on the stand — that Robinson had a number of behavioral and mental disorders — he was completely capable of manipulating the others into doing what he wanted.

Calloway said Robinson suffered from schizophrenia, bipolar, intellectual disability formally called mental retardation, personality disorder, impulse control disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and alcohol and marijuana dependency.

Cook said the Abualeinan family was torn apart following the murder, and the family has never been the same.

She said not only did the robbery occur at the store, but it was also at the family’s home. The family lived in an apartment behind the store. In fact, jurors heard testimony from Jose Martinez, a construction worker who was making repairs to the apartment. Martinez helped Zina Abualeinan call 911 after they discovered Hecham’s lifeless body on the floor of the store.

“They lost their provider and protector,” Cook said during her closing statements.

Contact reporter Shavonne Walker at 704-797-4253. Reporter Josh Bergeron contributed to this story.