Durham presses hard on Lovette

The teen will face a murder charge in Abhijit Mahato's death, even though he might not have fired the fatal shot

Staff WriterApril 11, 2008 

— Prosecutors are proceeding with murder charges against a teen accused of killing a Duke University graduate student even though he might not have pulled the trigger.

Laurence Alvin Lovette, 17, is accused of first-degree murder in the slaying of Abhijit Mahato, who was found shot to death in January in his off-campus apartment.

Lovette is also accused of murdering Eve Carson, the UNC-Chapel Hill student body president found shot to death March 5.

Lovette was in Durham County Superior Court on Thursday for proceedings connected to the Mahato case.

Assistant District Attorney Tracey Cline divulged details of the investigation as she tried to persuade Judge Ronald Stephens to reject a request to lower his $3 million bail to $500,000.

"We don't have sufficient evidence to say Mr. Lovette was the shooter," Cline told the judge.

Stephen L. Oates, 19, also has been charged with first-degree murder in the Mahato case.

Oates, Cline told the judge Thursday, is the suspect investigators had tied to the murder weapon.

Through ballistic evidence, Cline said, investigators had discovered that a gun used in several armed robberies was the same weapon used to kill Mahato.

Several witnesses to the robberies, Cline said, had helped investigators identify Oates as the suspected shooter.

But Durham prosecutors often proceed with first-degree murder charges using the "acting in concert" theory, under which a person doesn't have to fire the lethal bullet if he was part of a group acting as one to commit a crime.

Mahato was found dead in his bedroom Jan. 18 by friends who were concerned that he had not responded to phone calls or text messages.

An autopsy revealed that Mahato, an engineering student from India, was shot between the eyes by a gun wrapped in a pillow.

Several hours later, Cline said, three small transactions were made with Mahato's ATM card. Surveillance photos from those places led investigators to a white car, Cline said, that also linked Lovette to the case, although she did not elaborate on how.

Several calls from Mahato's cell phone also were made about 2 a.m., Cline said, to friends of Lovette's at a party.

Cline said Lovette and Oates had shared living quarters from time to time, but she did not say where or when.

Durham police have said Mahato was shot during a string of armed robberies, and Lovette and Oates are accused of other robberies.

In one case, Cline said, police stopped a car that Lovette was driving. Lovette fled, Cline said, leaving two young women in the car who identified him as the driver.

In another case, a common law robbery case, Cline said, Lovette was playing in a basketball game in which the loser had to give up his pants. Cline said the teen pushed his way into the loser's home and took his pants and shoes.

Chapel Hill police have released few details about the Carson homicide. Judge Carl Fox sealed a search warrant and documents related to the investigation.

In Durham, the lawyer representing Lovette tried to stanch the flow of information about the case.

The lawyer, Karen Bethea-Shields, asked Stephens on Thursday to grant a protective order that would have limited the public sharing of information.

Court officials and local politicians had made statements to local reporters, Bethea-Shields argued, that could prejudice potential jurors and hamper Lovette's right to a fair trial.

"Trial by media is not what our Constitution stands for," Bethea-Shields said.

Stephens rejected her request, as well as the motion for a lower bail.

"I've seen nothing by anyone in this case that rises to the level that would require this court to sign a protective order," Stephens said.

anne.blythe@newsobserver.com or (919) 932-8741

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