Winston-Salem, N.C. — One of two men accused in the 2008 shooting death of UNC's student body president will spend the rest of his life in prison after being convicted on federal charges in the case.
To avoid a possible death sentence, Demario James Atwater, 23, pleaded guilty Monday to five charges, including carjacking resulting in death and kidnapping resulting in death in the March 5, 2008, shooting of Eve Marie Carson.
His trial was set to begin in U.S. District Court May 3.
Atwater, however, still faces the death penalty on state charges in Carson's death, which include first-degree murder, kidnapping and robbery.
Carson's parents said in a statement Monday that they support the plea deal federal prosecutors made with Atwater.
"While we deplore the evil and negligence that led to Eve's death, we agree with the U.S. attorney's decision to accept the plea agreement," Bob Carson and Teresa Bethke said. "We are very grateful for the dedication and hard work that have gone into the investigation and prosecution of this crime."
"I want to express my condolences to the Carsons," Atwater's mother, Peggy Maybrey said Monday, declining further comment.
According to the agreement, filed Friday, Atwater also pleaded guilty to one count each of carrying and using firearms during and in relation to carjacking and kidnapping resulting in death, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and possession of a short-barreled shotgun without such weapon being properly registered.
In addition to life imprisonment, Atwater could face fines of up to $750,000. Sentencing is scheduled in U.S. District Court on Sept. 23.
"Eve Carson's murder was a senseless, random act of violence," U.S. Attorney Anna Mills Wagoner said in a statement. "We hope this resolution will help the Carson family put this horrendous act behind them, as best they can, and move on with their lives."
Atwater's defense attorneys declined to comment on the plea.
"This case is a tragic case, and it's sad for a lot of people," attorney Kimberly Stevens said. "We've worked an appropriate resolution in federal court, and that's really our only comment."
"We're just glad that it was resolved in the way it was, and hopefully, the state case will proceed on," attorney Gregory Davis said.
Atwater is expected to appear in Orange County Superior Court next week for a pre-trial hearing on the state charges.
Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall said Monday that the federal plea has no bearing on the state's case, which still has not been scheduled for trial.
"The federal charges were totally different than the state charges," Woodall said. "The federal charges weren't homicide charges, so the state charges still stand, and we go forward on those."
Death sentences in Orange County are rare. Juries there haven't returned one in about 70 years.
Chapel Hill police say Atwater and Laurence Alvin Lovette Jr. kidnapped Carson, forced her to withdraw money from ATMs, shot her five times, including once to the head.
Police responding to reports of gunfire found the 22-year-old from Athens, Ga., dead in a neighborhood less than a mile from the UNC campus.
A pre-med double major from Athens, Ga., Carson was a Morehead-Cain scholar who, university officials, students and friends said had left a legacy of community service in the UNC and Chapel Hill communities.
The university each year honors that legacy by awarding scholarships in her name to students who demonstrate leadership and community service.
UNC officials had no comment on Monday's plea deal, but many students said they were pleased that the case is finally moving toward a resolution.
“It is one step in the closure. Obviously, it is not full closure, because we still do not know what is going to happen with the state of North Carolina," said Katherine Novinski, a junior whom Carson mentored. "I think that is what is important for the sake of the community – that the case just keeps going forward."
Carson's death sent shockwaves throughout the university and Chapel Hill communities, enraged state lawmakers and highlighted problems within North Carolina's probation and parole system.
Atwater and Lovette were on probation at the time of Carson's death, and a state investigation found that Atwater was never placed under intensive probation, despite two court orders to do so.
After pleading guilty to misdemeanor larceny and breaking and entering charges, Lovette, who was 17 at the time, was assigned a probation officer who was handling more than 120 cases, even though she had not completed basic training.
In the six weeks he was on probation from January to March 2008, he was arrested and released several times on nine charges, including burglary, car theft, breaking and entering and resisting arrest.
Lovette also faces a first-degree murder charge in the Jan. 18, 2008, shooting death of Duke graduate student Abhijit Mahato who was found dead in his apartment near campus.
Mahato, 29, originally from Tatangar, India, was studying for an engineering doctorate degree in computational mechanics at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering. He was in his second year.
Trial dates for Lovette in both Carson's and Mahato's deaths are pending.