Durham, N.C. — It will be at least December before a Superior Court judge decides whether the first-degree murder trial of a man accused of killing a Duke University graduate student should be moved out of Durham County.
Defense attorneys for Laurence Lovette, accused in the January 2008 shooting death of Abhijit Mahato, told Judge Jim Hardin during a pre-trial hearing Friday that extensive news coverage of the case would make it impossible for their client to get a fair and impartial trial from a local jury pool.
Attorney Karen Bethea-Shields said Lovette’s name has been referenced in more than 1,200 newspaper articles in Durham, Orange and Wake counties and numerous television and online news reports about both the Mahato case and Lovette’s 2011 conviction in the slaying of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill student Eve Carson.
“It is true, just because there is a lot of coverage, that is not enough for the court to grant a change of venue. Many of the things said about the specific case we are going to be trying are not factual,” Bethea-Shields said. “The publicity and the effect that it has on people’s opinions about Laurence Lovette is very important.”
She pointed to a recent survey in which none of the respondents indicated that they believed Lovette was not involved in the crime.
“It’s something that should give the court concern that this defendant’s constitutional rights might not be protected,” Bethea-Shields said.
But Durham County Assistant District Attorney Jim Dornfried argued that the survey failed to ask if those polled could put aside their pre-trial opinions and render a decision based on evidence presented at trial.
Judge James E. Hardin said he would likely rule on the motion the week of Dec. 16, when he will also address other matters in the case and possibly set a trial date.
In addition to moving the trial out of Durham County, Hardin will also consider the defense’s request to bring in a jury from either Wilmington or Elizabeth City.
Lovette is already is serving life in prison for Carson’s March 5, 2008, death. His arrest in that case led authorities to charge him in Mahato’s death.
The 29-year-old engineering student from Tatangar, India, was found dead inside his apartment off Duke’s campus on Jan. 18, 2008. An autopsy found he died from a single gunshot wound that was fired at point-blank range to his forehead as a pillow was held tightly to his face.
If convicted in Mahato’s death, Lovette could also face a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
Prosecutors are not seeking the death penalty in the case, because a U.S. Supreme Court ruling prohibits the punishment for anyone convicted of a crime committed while they were under the age of 18.
Lovette was 16 at the time of Mahato’s death.