Local News

Attorneys for Durham sect members challenge key witness

Posted March 27, 2012 1:14 p.m. EDT
Updated March 27, 2012 5:54 p.m. EDT

— The attorneys for members of a religious sect accused of killing a Durham boy and a woman asked a judge Tuesday for access to any mental health records of a key prosecution witness.

The bodies of Jadon Higganbothan, 4, and Antoinetta Yvonne McKoy, 28, were found buried behind a house on Ashe Street in Durham last June. They both had been shot in the head, according to autopsy reports.

Peter Lucas Moses, 27, faces first-degree murder charges in their deaths, and prosecutors have said they plan to seek the death penalty against him.

Authorities have said Moses led a religious group of women and children who called him “Lord” and feared him.

An informant told police that Moses killed Jadon in October 2010 because he thought the child was gay and ordered that McKoy be killed two months later after he learned she couldn't have children and wanted to leave the group.

One defense attorney described the informant, identified in court Tuesday as Zayna Thomas, as a potential co-defendant, noting that, according to her own admission, she was present when the crimes were committed and at one point held a gun to McKoy's head.

"She is not just a state's witness. She is the state's witness," said attorney Elizabeth Koch, who represents Moses' mother, Sheilda Harris. "The whole case hangs on her credibility."

Harris, Moses' brother, P. Leonard Moses, and his sister, Sheila Moses, are charged as accessories in McKoy's death.

"(Thomas provides) the only evidence that I've seen out of some 10,000-plus pages that Ms. Sisk has committed any criminal offense at all," said attorney Michael Driver, who represents Jadon's mother, Vania Rae Sisk.

Sisk and two other women who lived with Peter Moses, Larhonda Renee Smith and Lavada Quinzetta Harris, have been charged with murder in McKoy's death and as accessories in Jadon's death.

Defense attorneys argued in their motion that a mental health counselor accompanied Thomas to meet with Durham police early last year and made comments as investigators interviewed Thomas, but Assistant Durham County District Attorney Dale Morrill said the person was actually an advocate for battered women.

The defense attorneys also said in the motion that Thomas grew up in foster care and admitted to police that she had suffered bouts of depression.

Morrill argued that authorities don't know if Thomas has a history of mental health problems, and turning over her records to the defense would be unfair.

"To wholeheartedly give everything to the defense ... would prejudice her as an individual in something that has no relevance at all to her, that may have happened 15 years ago," he said.

Superior Court Judge Henry Hight said he would review Thomas' records before deciding whether anything would be released to the defense. He also asked prosecutors to contact her to see if she would consent to releasing the information.