A murder, two state witnesses, and two stated motives

July 30, 2009Duke Law News

Case Profile:
In the early morning hours of a Saturday in October, a Central North Carolina man was found dead from a single gunshot to the head. He was a husband and a father, but he was also a known crack cocaine user and died with a crack pipe in his hand. More than four months later, a sixteen-year-old boy from the neighborhood was arrested, charged with the murder, and held on bond. The next day, his seventeen-year-old friend was also arrested and charged with the murder, but released the same day on a lesser bond amount.

The sixteen-year-old was determined incompetent to stand trial because of psychiatric problems – eventually diagnosed as schizophrenia – and spent the next two years in state custody being medicated for his illness, sometimes involuntarily, in part in an effort to render him competent to stand trial. A doctor eventually determined him competent to stand trial but warned that his competency was linked to the proper and timely administration of his medication. The trial proceeded during the window of competency, but resulted in a mistrial when the jury deadlocked, reportedly with eight members voting for acquittal.

The state quickly set a date for a second trial, scheduling it for just ten days away, which pushed at the limits of effectiveness of the defendant’s monthly medication by injection. That trial ended with a guilty verdict, and the then-nineteen-year-old was sentenced to life in prison.

The only evidence implicating the defendant at trial was the testimony of (1) the friend also charged with the murder and (2) a jailhouse informant. The friend, who was still out on bond for the murder charge, had been charged with several offenses during the intervening two years, including two separate charges for carrying a concealed weapon. His bond was not revoked for either, and he remained out of custody.

At trial, he acknowledged that he, too, was charged with the murder, but testified to his own complete uninvolvement in it. His testimony was very brief – only that he witnessed his friend sell the victim drugs that Friday evening, the victim passed his friend paper rather than money and then sped away, and the friend said he was going to “get that dude.” He said that, at some point later, his friend also said, “I got that dude.” Although he denied having any deal with the prosecution or police in exchange for his testimony, the murder charge against him was dropped several months after his friend’s second trial, and the weapons and other charges were resolved largely in his favor.

The jailhouse informant testified that the defendant asked to speak to him in the county jail shortly after his arrest. He said the defendant told him he shot the victim, who was white, because he hated all white people and that all white people had to die. According to the informant, the defendant was very intelligent and book smart, and was a revolutionary following the teachings of Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael. He added that the defendant had a list of people to kill next, which included several of the town’s police officers.

The informant also denied having a deal with the authorities in exchange for his testimony, but only two days after he gave a statement to the police, he plead guilty to a string of misdemeanors, rather than the sixteen felony charges of obtaining property by false pretenses and common law forgery that were pending against him. He received a 45-day sentence, all of which was suspended, and probation.

In brief, then, a very ill teenager was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison solely on the testimony of two state witnesses, whose stories did not match and whose own criminal charges were resolved remarkably in their favor.
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