UNC murder suspect wants hearing on 'staggering' media coverage
Posted January 27, 2010 6:39 a.m. EST
Updated May 25, 2010 11:26 a.m. EDT
Winston-Salem, N.C. — Defense attorneys for a man facing federal charges in the death of UNC's former student body president want an evidentiary hearing before a judge on whether to move the case out of North Carolina.
The attorneys say their client, Demario James Atwater, would be unable to get a fair trial because of media attention surrounding the March 5, 2008, shooting death of Eve Marie Carson.
She was shot five times and left in a neighborhood several blocks from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.
In addition to state charges, Atwater faces federal kidnapping and carjacking charges, which mean the death penalty if he is convicted.
His trial is scheduled for May, but attorney Kimberly Stevens said the "staggering" amount of coverage of the case could keep her client from receiving a fair trial.
Before U.S. District Judge James A. Beaty Jr. rules on whether to grant the change-of-venue request, defense attorneys want him to view media coverage and hear about a statewide survey regarding people's attitudes toward the case.
That survey found that 80 percent of respondents had some knowledge of the case and that 52 percent believe Atwater is guilty and should be sentenced to death.
The media, Stevens argued, has already reported on Atwater's criminal past – information she said is inadmissible in court until the sentencing phase of a trial, unless the defendant testifies.
"Demario Atwater requests only a fair trial, nothing more or nothing less," Stevens said. "The press has already put it before the jury."
Prosecutors argued that the defense has already offered enough samples of media coverage in its motion and that an evidentiary hearing would only generate more publicity in the case.
“I think it’s more of the same," Assistant U.S. Attorney Cliff Barrett said, adding that a change of venue because of publicity is an “extremely high standard and is rarely applicable.”
"It just seems highly unlikely that we can’t find 12 people," he said of the jury pool in the North Carolina's Middle District.
Beaty did not rule on the matter and did not say when he would do so.
Also on Wednesday, the judge ruled that screening of potential jurors will begin Feb. 22 with them filling out a questionnaire at the federal courthouse in Winston-Salem.
He also denied a defense request for more time to file a notice seeking a mental health evaluation for Atwater.
Defense attorneys said they did not have enough information to make that determination, but Beaty disagreed, saying they must do so by Feb. 1.
On the state level, Atwater also faces the death penalty on charges that include first-degree murder, kidnapping, robbery, felonious larceny and felonious possession of stolen goods.
A trial date, however, has not been set, for those charges.
Authorities say Atwater and another man, Laurence Alvin Lovette Jr., kidnapped Carson and forced her to withdraw money from ATMs before shooting her. Federal prosecutors allege that Atwater fired the fifth and final shot that killed Carson.
Lovette, who was 17 when Carson was killed, also faces several charges, including first-degree murder. He, however, is not eligible for the death penalty under a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that prohibits the executions of criminals under 18 at the time of the crime.