Local News

Witness saw men near Carson's home hours before her death

Posted December 8, 2011 9:12 a.m. EST
Updated December 15, 2011 12:22 p.m. EST

— A former University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill student testified Thursday in the murder trial of Laurence Lovette Jr. that she saw two men on a Chapel Hill street near Eve Carson's home hours before the student body president was found dead three years ago.

Caroline Harper said she had just finished talking to her boyfriend on her cellphone around 3:30 a.m. March 5, 2008, when she noticed through her rearview mirror two black men in their late teens or early 20s standing near a large garbage bin in the Rosemary Street parking lot of the Pi Beta Phi sorority.

They were wearing dark baggy clothes, hooded shirts and caps under the hood.

"They were standing there looking at me," Harper said. "It was just a couple of seconds before I got really frightened and drove away."

As she left, she said, she saw the men walking toward Friendly Lane, about a block away, where prosecutors say Eve Carson was last seen hours earlier working on a paper.

Less than two hours later, surveillance video from the sorority house showed two men matching the descriptions on the men Harper saw walking past the sorority house in the opposite direction, Chapel Hill police investigator Bryan Walker testified.

Lovette, 21, is charged with first-degree murder in Carson’s death. Authorities say he and another man kidnapped her, drove her to two ATMs where they withdrew or tried to withdraw money from her checking account and then shot her five times in the middle of a neighborhood less than a mile from UNC.

Defense attorneys tried to keep the jury from hearing Harper’s testimony, saying it was irrelevant to the case and prejudicial to their client.

Superior Court Judge Allen Baddour, however, agreed with prosecutors that it put the men in the vicinity of Carson’s home at about the same time they contend Lovette and his co-defendant, Demario Atwater, kidnapped Carson.

The clothes Harper described were similar to what Lovette and Atwater had been wearing that night, Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall said.

Earlier Thursday, Stan Godwin, a vice president of customer relations for Bank of America, testified that someone tried eight times within an hour to withdraw money from Carson’s Bank of America accounts at University Mall in Chapel Hill and at Northgate Mall in Durham.

Godwin said $700 was from the Chapel Hill ATM – the maximum daily amount.

The last attempt at a withdrawal was made at 4:44 a.m. in Durham, he said, less than 30 minutes before police found Carson's body in Chapel Hill.

Within the next 32 hours, there were 10 more withdrawal attempts. Two were at the Morehead Mini Mart in Durham, beginning at 12:39 p.m. March 5.

Six were made, beginning at 2:16 a.m. March 6, at the Northgate Bank of America, where $700 more was withdrawn.

Two more were attempted at 12:54 a.m. at the Carolina Foodmart BP station on North Alston Avenue in Durham. By that time, the bank had put transaction stops on Carson’s accounts, Godwin said.

Jurors also saw surveillance video from the ATMs of a man who resembled Lovette in Carson's SUV making transactions.

Selina Hughes, a witness representing Bank of America, said the video showed a man pulling up to the ATM with two other passengers. Baddour struck Hughes' testimony about the passengers at the defense's objection.

The state has said that witness testimony, the surveillance photos and DNA found on the inside driver-side door of Carson’s Toyota Highlander tie Lovette and Atwater to Carson’s death.

During her opening statement Wednesday, defense attorney Karen Bethea-Shields conceded that Lovette knew Atwater and that the prosecution will have evidence connecting him to Carson's SUV, but she denied Lovette was with Atwater when he shot Carson with a shotgun. Many of the witnesses for the prosecution will have criminal records and motives to lie, she said.

"There's no forensic evidence to connect Laurence Lovette to the killing of Eve Carson," Bethea-Shields said.

Atwater, 25, pleaded guilty last year to state and federal charges in the case and was sentenced to two life prison terms.

Lovette will not face the death penalty if convicted because he was a minor at the time of the shooting. If he’s convicted, he faces life in prison without the possibility of parole.