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UNC Murder Suspect Was Overlooked by State

Why was Demario James Atwater overlooked by the state's parole system, and why was a hearing about a parole violation rescheduled?

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RALEIGH, N.C. — A suspect charged in Eve Carson's homicide was overlooked by the state's probation system and was allowed to remain out of jail for months until his arrest this week in the University of North Carolina student leader's shooting death.

"We did not provide adequate supervision. We did not do things timely," Robert L. Guy, director of the Department of Correction's Division of Community Corrections, said Friday.

Guy has launched an internal investigation to determine what policies were broken and how the oversights could have been detected. It's possible, he said, that some staff members could be fired, based upon what the investigation finds.

In February 2005, Demario James Atwater was convicted in Wake County of felony breaking and entering and larceny. A judge sentenced him to three years' probation. That included nine months of "intensive" probation, which required Atwater to be in contact with a probation officer five times a week – at least once in person.

It wasn't until last month, on Feb. 20, that he was arrested on a probation violation from June 2007, in which he pleaded guilty in Granville County to possession of a firearm. Paperwork for that violation had been filed in November.

"Why did it take until November to issue the paperwork from June, and why did it take until February to have him actually arrested?" Guy asked.

According to court records, there was no address listed on the arrest warrant issued in November, and authorities didn't know where to find Atwater. His probation officer contacted him in February and arrested him.

Another mistake uncovered by WRAL Friday: Contrary to state probation policy, the oversight of Atwater's parole was never transferred to Durham County, where Atwater lived.

When Atwater appeared in court March 3 – two days before Carson was shot to death near the UNC campus – the date was rescheduled to March 31 because of clerical errors.

Atwater and his probation officer appeared in a District Court courtroom, but his file was sent to a Superior Court courtroom where the case was to be heard. When a clerk of court checked his case status in a statewide computer system, it showed the 2005 case had been disposed.

"I don't think you can point to one person and say that they were at fault," Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said. "Much of this is symptomatic of the fact these were non-violent offenses."

The clerk didn't have the information she needed to understand the facts of the case, Willoughby said.

"Our system is very fragile. We don’t have a good information system, and this is a byproduct of it," he said.

Guy said probation officers must periodically search court records on their clients to see if they have violated parole

"I think everybody in the public thinks that we have these automatic red flags in the criminal justice system that when a new crime occurs … we're automatically notified," Guy said. "Our system's not that good."

Records show about 117,000 convicts are on probation in North Carolina, meaning each of the 2,000 or so probation officers must handle 58 cases.

In 98 percent of cases where someone on probation commits a violent crime, all policies are followed, Guy said.

"In most cases, we've done our best effort, despite the tragedy, but these things do happen. I'm not trying to make light of things," Guy said. "This is a horrible tragedy."

In the case of Atwater, Guy admitted the case should never have gotten to the March 3 court appearance and that his department should have intervened sooner.

"In fairness to Mr. Willoughby and (Wake County Clerk of Superior Court Lorrin) Freeman, he should not have been in Wake County court," Guy said.

But Willoughby and Guy said it's impossible to say whether any of Atwater's criminal acts and alleged criminal acts, including Carson's death, could have been prevented with earlier intervention.

"There are a lot of opportunities along the way for something to have happened, but to be able to look back and say that any one of them would have changed the course of events, it's probably not fair for anyone involved," Willoughby said.