Local News

Bill Would Stiffen Penalties for Gang-Related Crimes

Posted March 17, 2008 6:05 p.m. EDT
Updated March 17, 2008 9:28 p.m. EDT

— Police haven't said if they think the slayings of Abhijit Mahoto or Eve Carson are gang-related, but the cases have fueled a new debate on tougher anti-gang legislation anyway.

It started last week when Durham County District Judge Craig Brown, during an initial court appearance by one of the suspects, called on the governor and other state leaders to hold a special legislative session to take immediate action.

ATM surveillance photos in Carson's killing show one of the suspects, Lawrence Alvin Lovette jr., wearing a hat with a vintage Houston Astros logo, a symbol known to be tied to gangs. A judge's ruling in 2005 ordered the other suspect, Demario James Atwater, to stay away from gangs.

State lawmakers say that although it's still speculation what involvement, if any, gangs have in either death, they do know that gangs are a growing problem in the Triangle.

The state House of Representatives passed House Bill 272, "The Gang Prevention Act," late last year. It would define gang activity and increase penalties for gang-related crimes. The bill is now in the Senate and is expected to be considered in the short session of the General Assembly that begins in May.

So far, however, the funding needed to make the legislation work is absent, legislators say.

"It will not, in my opinion, get better without funding," said Rep. Marian McLawhorn, D-Pitt, who is on a state committee dealing with gang prevention.

Lawmakers are also consulting with local law-enforcement agencies to determine ways to intervene with, prevent and suppress gang activity.

"What we're going to do is, very carefully, craft a bill that sends a message that gangs are not welcome and (that) they're not the way to go," Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, D-Orange, said.

Kinnaird said keeping children and teenagers out of gangs needs to be a key component of any legislation.

"We're going to also, I hope, find a way to say to those kids, 'We've got something very creative and productive for you to do so you can become good citizens instead of terrible monsters that some of these gang members have become.'"

Opponents of the legislation have said it might allow police to target innocent people wearing what appears to be gang-affiliated clothing.

Lawmakers say they are willing to streamline the legislation to make sure it only targets those who break the law.

A graduate student at Duke University, Mahato, 29, was found shot to death in his apartment a few blocks from campus on Jan. 18. Carson, 22, a senior and the student body president at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was found shot to death on a street in an upscale neighborhood about a half-mile from the campus March 5.