HILLSBOROUGH, N.C. — One of two men charged in the slaying of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill student body president Eve Carson pleaded guilty Monday to first-degree murder, avoiding a possible death sentence for his role in the March 2008 crime.
Superior Court Judge Allen Baddour sentenced Demario James Atwater to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Last month, Atwater also avoided the death penalty by pleading guilty to five federal charges in the case, including carjacking resulting in death and kidnapping, in exchange for a life sentence without parole.
Under the agreement with the state, Atwater will serve his sentence in federal custody.
"Mr. Atwater, what you have admitted to doing was senseless, as it's been said by two attorneys before me," Baddour said. "It was wrong. It can have no place in our free society."
Atwater also pleaded guilty to robbery with a dangerous weapon, first-degree kidnapping and possession of a firearm by a felon. Charges of felonious larceny, possession of a weapon of mass destruction and possession of stolen goods were dismissed.
Baddour sentenced Atwater to 275 to 349 months on the remaining charges, to be served concurrently with the life sentence.
Carson's mother, father and brother, from Athens, Ga., were present for the hearing and offered a statement, read by Raleigh attorney Wade Smith.
"We won't be talking to the court about how our lives are diminished without Eve. The effects of her death are both obvious and personal. We choose not to confront Demario Atwater. The selfishness of taking another's life is incomprehensible, and this coward is unaddressable," Smith read.
The family continued, saying the life sentence "is consistent with the wishes of our family and honors Eve's love of life and all people."
A representative for UNC-Chapel Hill said the university would not comment on Atwater's plea.
"There's been so much made that Eve was the president of the student body at UNC, and that was a great accomplishment, and she had done many great things," Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall said. "But I think she was – she was a sister, she was a daughter – and to me, that's probably more important than anything."
"I just hope, by what we're doing today, we can help the family. We can give them some sense of closure as it relates to this defendant," he continued. "I wish we could do more. We can't."
Atwater had nothing to say, but his attorney, Jonathan Broun, extended sympathy to the Carson family.
"We knew that allowing a sentence that, while harsh and severe as it should be, will allow him to live. We know they are doing that, not as a favor to Mr. Atwater, but because of the love that they feel for Eve Carson, and we appreciate it."
New details revealed
Police found Carson's body in the early morning of March 5, 2008, in a neighborhood several blocks from the UNC campus while responding to reports of gunshots.
An autopsy found she was shot four times with a 25-caliber handgun and once – the fifth and fatal shot – with a sawed-off Harrington & Richardson 12-gauge shotgun.
"She had placed her (right) hand up to shield her head, whenever the shotgun was fired," Woodall said, outlining the facts of the case. "The medical examiner believed that she would have survived for some period of time, as to the gunshot wounds from the 25-caliber handgun."
Atwater and his alleged accomplice, Laurence Alvin Lovette Jr., went to Carson's home, abducted her and took her in her blue Toyota Highlander to make two ATM withdrawals each of $700 before killing her, Woodall said.
"All the other evidence tends to support that Eve Carson was – they confronted and took her from her home – if not actually inside her home, just outside her home," Woodall said.
Atwater later admitted to his girlfriend at the time, Shanita Love, what had happened, and he told about a dozen other people parts of what happened that night, Woodall said.
The crime was random, Atwater admitted, and he and Lovette, who is still awaiting trial, had been in Chapel Hill looking for people to rob.
What investigators were never able to determine was where Atwater and his alleged accomplice kidnapped Carson. There were a couple of different stories, he told, about how she was abducted, Woodall said.
"He told (Love) that they had gone into a sorority house through an open door and got Ms. Carson," he said.
"There was never any evidence discovered, other than this statement, that anyone went into the house," Woodall continued.
Other evidence also put Atwater and Lovette in Chapel Hill and near Carson's home that morning.
Around 3:30 a.m., Woodall said, a woman reported seeing "two suspicious black males" in the area of Rosemary Street near the house where Carson lived on Friendly Lane.
Video footage showed the men, identified as Atwater and Lovette, walking and, a few minutes later, driving by in Carson's SUV.
Lovette also used a cell phone that could be traced to Franklin Street, about a mile from Carson's home, at 3:02 a.m., Woodall said.
After Atwater's arrest, police also found Carson's iPod in his truck and shotgun shells consistent with the murder weapon in his home.
DNA evidence in Carson's SUV also linked Atwater to the crime, Woodall said.
"That is some of the evidence in this case," he said. "This is a case where there is literally a mountain of evidence, and it seems clear that the defendant was the one who fired the shotgun on this occasion."