Local News

Murder Suspect Was in Court 2 Days Before Carson's Death

Posted March 13, 2008 3:30 p.m. EDT
Updated March 19, 2008 11:21 a.m. EDT

— One of the murder suspects in the shooting death of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's student body president was in a Wake County courtroom on a probation violation two days before her shooting death.

A series of clerical errors, however, forestalled the possibility of Demario James Atwater going to jail, according to Clerk of Superior Court Lorrin Freeman and state Department of Correction officials.

Atwater and his probation officer showed up in third-floor courtroom 2-D at 9:30 a.m. March 3, but his court file was sent to a fourth-floor courtroom, Freeman said. The judge and all parties involved agreed to reschedule the hearing for March 31.

Two days later, on March 5, Chapel Hill police found UNC senior Eve Carson's body about a half-mile from the campus. Atwater, 21, is one of two suspects charged with first-degree murder in connection with her death.

"We are working very diligently to try and find out how this could have happened," Freeman said. "The file was in one courtroom, and it would have been a relatively simple matter to find out where the file was and have it brought up to the courtroom. That is something that should have been done."

Correction officials said that, had the hearing occurred, Atwater could have been sent back to jail then or another court date, which would have been similar to a first court appearance, could have been scheduled.

The state Department of Correction has also opened an investigation into why it took several months to bring Atwater to court for that probation violation. He pleaded guilty to a gun charge in June 2007, violating his three years’ probation from a 2005 break-in, correction officials said.

Atwater was arrested Feb. 20 on the probation violation, released under a $10,000 secured bond and set to appear in court March 3.

Atwater should have been arrested in June, the corrections department said, but his probation officer did not fill out the necessary paperwork until five months later.

The clerk of court also took the blame for another clerical error, relating to Atwater's 2005 sentence.

A judge sentenced Atwater to nine months of intensive probation that required him to check almost daily with a probation officer. A clerk, however, did not put the correct information in Atwater's file, so he was placed on regular probation.

"That the opportunity was there, that in some way that some intervention may have occurred, obviously, is something that is going to be of grave concern to us forever," Freeman said.

Both Atwater and Laurence Alvin Lovette, 17, also charged with first-degree murder in Carson's death, have criminal records.

Atwater's dates to 2004 and includes charges of robbery, drug possession and resisting arrest. In 2006, he was sentenced to 24 months' probation for possession of a firearm as a felon.

Lovette's criminal record includes charges of breaking and entering and larceny, for which he was on probation when he was arrested Thursday. He was due in a Durham courtroom this month on charges of first-degree burglary, felony larceny of a motor vehicle and felony larceny after breaking and entering, all related to two crimes from February.

He was also charged Thursday with first-degree murder in the Jan. 18 shooting death of Duke University graduate student Abhijit Mahato and with several other charges connected to crimes from mid-February.

Atwater and Lovette both went to Jordan High School in Durham and withdrew in 2002 and 2007, respectively, Durham Public Schools spokesman Michael Yarbrough said Thursday.

Atwater later enrolled at Apex High School, where he once got in a fight with another student over a blue bandanna he displayed on campus, Apex police Sgt. Jacques Gilbert, a school resource officer, said.

"We interviewed Mr. Atwater. He indicated the blue bandanna represented a gang that he was affiliated with," Gilbert said.

The gang was based in Durham, where both he and Lovette were arrested this week.

But Durham police Chief Jose Lopez said Thursday that at this point in each of the cases, he does not want to "give any credit to any gangs."

"I believe they are two young men who were involved in some robberies and homicides, and they have been charged as such."

Atwater, who was arrested Wednesday, was being held in the Orange County Jail without bond. Lovette was being held in the Durham County Jail without bond.

Lovette could make an appearance before a judge as early as Friday to face charges in Carson's death, Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall said.