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UNC Murder Suspect Was Overlooked by State

Posted March 14, 2008
Updated March 16, 2008

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— A suspect charged in Eve Carson's homicide was overlooked by the state's probation system and was allowed to remain out of jail for months until his arrest this week in the University of North Carolina student leader's shooting death.

"We did not provide adequate supervision. We did not do things timely," Robert L. Guy, director of the Department of Correction's Division of Community Corrections, said Friday.

Guy has launched an internal investigation to determine what policies were broken and how the oversights could have been detected. It's possible, he said, that some staff members could be fired, based upon what the investigation finds.

In February 2005, Demario James Atwater was convicted in Wake County of felony breaking and entering and larceny. A judge sentenced him to three years' probation. That included nine months of "intensive" probation, which required Atwater to be in contact with a probation officer five times a week – at least once in person.

It wasn't until last month, on Feb. 20, that he was arrested on a probation violation from June 2007, in which he pleaded guilty in Granville County to possession of a firearm. Paperwork for that violation had been filed in November.

"Why did it take until November to issue the paperwork from June, and why did it take until February to have him actually arrested?" Guy asked.

According to court records, there was no address listed on the arrest warrant issued in November, and authorities didn't know where to find Atwater. His probation officer contacted him in February and arrested him.

Another mistake uncovered by WRAL Friday: Contrary to state probation policy, the oversight of Atwater's parole was never transferred to Durham County, where Atwater lived.

When Atwater appeared in court March 3 – two days before Carson was shot to death near the UNC campus – the date was rescheduled to March 31 because of clerical errors.

Atwater and his probation officer appeared in a District Court courtroom, but his file was sent to a Superior Court courtroom where the case was to be heard. When a clerk of court checked his case status in a statewide computer system, it showed the 2005 case had been disposed.

"I don't think you can point to one person and say that they were at fault," Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said. "Much of this is symptomatic of the fact these were non-violent offenses."

The clerk didn't have the information she needed to understand the facts of the case, Willoughby said.

"Our system is very fragile. We don’t have a good information system, and this is a byproduct of it," he said.

Guy said probation officers must periodically search court records on their clients to see if they have violated parole

"I think everybody in the public thinks that we have these automatic red flags in the criminal justice system that when a new crime occurs … we're automatically notified," Guy said. "Our system's not that good."

Records show about 117,000 convicts are on probation in North Carolina, meaning each of the 2,000 or so probation officers must handle 58 cases.

In 98 percent of cases where someone on probation commits a violent crime, all policies are followed, Guy said.

"In most cases, we've done our best effort, despite the tragedy, but these things do happen. I'm not trying to make light of things," Guy said. "This is a horrible tragedy."

In the case of Atwater, Guy admitted the case should never have gotten to the March 3 court appearance and that his department should have intervened sooner.

"In fairness to Mr. Willoughby and (Wake County Clerk of Superior Court Lorrin) Freeman, he should not have been in Wake County court," Guy said.

But Willoughby and Guy said it's impossible to say whether any of Atwater's criminal acts and alleged criminal acts, including Carson's death, could have been prevented with earlier intervention.

"There are a lot of opportunities along the way for something to have happened, but to be able to look back and say that any one of them would have changed the course of events, it's probably not fair for anyone involved," Willoughby said.

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  • legalcrazy Mar 18, 2008

    I want everyone to understand that just because one probation officer in one county is under investigation for not following policy (if that turns out to be the case) that it does not mean that all probation officers do not do their jobs. I think for anyone to be able to really understand probation, they would have to actually be an officer themselves. The news likes to report that the caseload should be 58 cases but what should really be told asked is "how many did that officer have"? If one person in one county doesn't do their job, how can everybody across the board be blamed? Maybe it's not probation officers that should be blamed (they cannot know what their offenders are doing at ALL times) but maybe the court system should be looked at as a whole and the question should be answered "why do we keep putting violent criminals with long criminal records on probation instead of sending them to prison?".

  • White Devil Mar 14, 2008

    I have news for the general public -- this is the rule rather than the exception. If regular citizens were aware of the violent criminals who walk amongst them everyday most would probably never leave their houses. By sheer numbers, the criminals have overrun the system. The criminals are well aware of how to work and manipulate the system through plea bargains, probation, etc. If one is going to blame the system, blame those who forced us to coddle the criminals (hint ACLU, liberal judges and lawyers, counselors, therapists, etc.). Because of their violent behavior and blatant disregard for our laws, some people simply have surrendered their right to walk free in our society. As such, they should not be continually afforded that right. When are we going to collectively say, "Enough!"

  • durham citizen Mar 14, 2008

    I guess officials, judges, clerks , probation officers, are so use to dealng with criminals like the accused they become immune. It is almost as if, here is another murderer, on well it is lunch time, send him/her back in a month. Wake up and smell the corpes ! You have a job to do !

  • Tax Man Mar 14, 2008

    I have not kept up with these stories as I am so busy with taxes.. but, if these guys are gang members, that should be enough for the police to arrest them for felony conspiracy charges and get them locked up for at least 5 years. If we would prosecute every gang member for the conspiracies they are involved in - drugs - prostitution - murder - theft - rape, then we should be able to get every single gang member locked up for major felonies - then come back and charge them with habitual felon and give them all life sentences! There is NO such thing as a good gang member - so elimate the gangs by actively pursuing the members and throwing away the key. I vote for the death penalty for these guys - even the 17 year old, as it appears he is a serial murderer. No mercy.

  • ThinkChick Mar 14, 2008

    I find it so interesting that so many are ready to set aside the death penalty for the suspects of two heineous murders because they could be rehabilitated - despite the fact they had sizable rap sheets. I find it also fascinating that there have been media comments, including stories from this station, that we have to be careful not to "try them in the press" nor "presume guilt." Note the absence of inflammatory letters from UNC faculty and fringe group marches.

    Why do I find these things so interesting and fascinating? The shadow the Duke lacrosse case is long. Those kids were tried and convicted with no evidence and there was no crime. They were labeled unredeemable hooligans. There were no calls for restraint or understanding.

    Perhaps lessons have been learned?

    I respect the Chapel Hill police and prosecutor for being so circumspect about the case, the arrests, etc. Wherever he is Nifong ought to be taking notes on how things ought to have happen

  • MOM AND LOVIN IT Mar 14, 2008

    Cut to the chase... the judicial system in Wake County ( and surrounding counties) is NOT acceptable. Whether it is in criminal court or family court they only want to hear 1/10th of the case, then "they" (the judges) make a random decision. Please help find a way to keep the "leaders" responsible. My kids got sexually abused because the judge didn't want to hear the whole case. We all live with the horror of the system.

  • All child molesters should die Mar 14, 2008

    What a shame that the 17 and 21 year old, can't face the death penalty! I think that is an atrocity!! Our laws need to change, and fast!

  • Miaitaliana Mar 14, 2008

    aww! you just have to be careful what you say I guess....they didnt post one or two of mine either

  • stem802 Mar 14, 2008

    Why dont you post my comments?????????????

  • Miaitaliana Mar 14, 2008

    I completely agree with the comment just below mine here.

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