Charges dropped in two slayings

Defense rejects intimidation claim

Staff WriterJanuary 3, 2007 

— Authorities dropped two murder charges against a Durham man after four witnesses either recanted or said they feared testifying.

But a lawyer for Jamal Manta Watson said Tuesday that the charges, stemming from an incident in August 2005, fell apart because they were based on a shoddy police investigation.

Prosecutors have not given up on Watson, 28, who has been charged as a habitual felon in an unrelated firearm case. The habitual felon status could greatly increase Watson's sentence if he is convicted. Assistant District Attorney James Dornfried said after he dropped the murder charges Tuesday that he anticipates taking the gun case to trial.

Watson was charged with the Aug. 2, 2005, fatal shootings of Tauarus Hamlett, 28 and James Allen Webb, 24, in an attempted robbery on South Maple Street. Authorities think another man was involved in the case as well.

Dornfried's dismissal paperwork listed four instances in which witnesses for the state either changed their stories or refused to cooperate further. Two witnesses recanted their identification. A third witness, who said he saw Watson running from the scene of the shooting, has been shot and said he will not testify at trial. The fourth witness told authorities she was afraid to cooperate.

Police have said Watson escaped armed robbery charges in 2000 because a witness changed his statement.

Watson's attorney, Michael Driver, said the state, in its dismissal, is implying that his client or someone else is intimidating witnesses.

"I think it's dismissed because it's just another poor investigation of a homicide with poor identification procedures," Driver said.

Driver filed a motion in June saying that one of the chief witnesses against Watson gave a sworn statement in which he claims he felt pressured and coerced into picking Watson in a photo lineup. The witness gave Driver a sworn statement in which he said he feared being charged with the crime if he didn't make an identification.

Driver said another witness went back to police to recant his identification. Only after Driver, through his own investigation, raised that issue with the court did the police confirm the witness had withdrawn his identification.

Staff writer Benjamin Niolet can be reached at 956-2404 or bniolet@newsobserver.com.

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