A boy nicknamed "Murder" by his fellow gang members was acquitted by a Wake County jury yesterday of yes, you guessed it, first degree murder. When the verdict was read, 17-year-old Latrell Latham appeared to laugh at the outcome of the trial that could have sent him to prison for life.
Two people who are not laughing are the widow of 74-year-old Richard Brown, the church deacon Latham was accused of pumping five bullets into at his mailbox, and prosecutor Howard Cummings. Cummings still believes that despite the verdict, investigators arrested the right person for the crime. At trial, Cummings laid out the gritty underbelly of the gang culture in Raleigh where young men shoot and kill innocent people at random in order to increase their stature in the gang.
Unfortunately, due to the rules of what can be permitted as evidence in a criminal courtroom, the jury never heard Latham's nickname. Maybe it would have made a difference, maybe not. But if I was a juror who turned on the news last night, or read the newspaper this morning, and had just discovered this fact, I would have a hard time sleeping at night.
There has been a steady phenomenon in our criminal court system of jurors wanting the crime to be wrapped up neatly in just under an hour. This comes from false expectations promoted by the fictionalized crime dramas on television every night. In reality, solving a crime is messy. It does not always come with perfect forensic evidence or video of the suspect committing the crime. In fact, most cases are based on a great amount of circumstantial evidence, including statements from witnesses about what was said in the days following the crime. Over and over again I hear prosecutors say, "If I can't get a conviction in this case, what's the point of taking cases to trial at all." This is why so many cases end in pleas. Juries are unpredictable, and even with strong evidence, guilty people often get away with serious crimes.
I do not know whether or not Latrell Latham committed this crime. A jury of twelve people said there was simply not enough evidence in their minds to prove that he did. I do know, however, that he was in a gang by his attorney's own admission, and that he was in jail on unrelated robbery charges when he was charged with Brown's murder. Given his age, and his record ,statistically, the odds that he will not be involved in the criminal justice system again are not good.
Judge Paul Ridgeway told Latham he should "take this opportunity to have a second chance at life." Let's hope that Latham does change his ways, and let's also hope he changes his nickname-not just for the community's sake, but for those twelve jurors who allowed him that second chance.