Demario Atwater, one of two men charged with killing former UNC student body president Eve Carson, pleaded guilty to state charges of first-degree murder Monday. Because of his guilty plea, Atwater will not receive the death penalty.
He received life in prison without the possibility of parole for the 2008 incident and also pleaded guilty to first-degree kidnapping, possession of a firearm by a felon and robbery with a dangerous weapon.
Monday’s court session marked the second time Atwater, 23, could have received the death penalty. Last month, he pleaded guilty to five federal charges including carjacking resulting in death and kidnapping, and received a life sentence without parole.
Carson, a pre-med Morehead-Cain scholar who was close to graduation, was found dead in a neighborhood near the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus March 5, 2008. Before shooting the 22 year-old Carson, Atwater and Laurence Lovette, his alleged accomplice, kidnapped her and forced her to withdraw money from an ATM machine.
Lovette was also arrested for the death of Duke engineering graduate student Abhijit Mahato, 29, who was shot and killed in his home at the Anderson Apartments near West Campus Jan. 18, 2008. Mahato was killed by a single shot to the head. Lovette faces first-degree murder charges for both students’ deaths. Atwater was not involved in Mahato’s killing.
An autopsy revealed that Carson was shot five times and likely raised her right arm to protect herself from a shotgun wound to the right temple.
In a news conference after the hearing, Orange County District Attorney Jimmy Woodall said the result of the Atwater case might speed up Lovette’s case. Lovette is currently being held in Durham County prison, but a court date for either case has yet to be set.
“I think it will move the Lovette case up, I think it will happen sooner than it would have happened,” Woodall told reporters.
Karen Bethea-Shields, Lovette’s attorney in both the Carson and Mahato cases, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Because Lovette was 17 at the time of both incidents, he will not face the death penalty.
Woodall said the outcome of the Atwater case should give closure to the state.
There is currently a death penalty moratorium in North Carolina, which Woodall said affected the decision to accept the plea bargain.
“We don’t know if anyone is ever going to be executed in this state again,” Woodall said. “The way that they could get closure was to accept this plea today and this absolutely, as much as we can be guaranteed that a person will never get out of prison, this plea helps guarantee that.”
Executions are particularly rare in Orange County, which has not returned a death penalty sentence in approximately 70 years.
Jonathan Broun, an attorney who represented Atwater, said it was good that the death penalty was avoided.
“This was definitely a senseless and tragic crime,” Broun said in an interview with The Chronicle. “We appreciate both the district attorney’s office and the Carson family for allowing [Atwater] to have a plea that allowed him to live. Although it is a very harsh punishment, we know that they were doing it out of a love for their daughter.”
Carson’s family was present at the hearing. Raleigh lawyer Wade Smith made a statement to the public on behalf of the family.
“We are not planning to address the court today about the loss of Eve,” Smith wrote in an e-mail. “Everyone knows it was a horrendous blow to us to lose her. And we are not going to confront the coward who selfishly took her life. Instead we will devote ourselves to the memory of Eve and to living our lives in a way that honors her.”
Smith added that he expects the Carson family will attend Lovette’s trial sessions or ask Smith to represent the family.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.