Killer to serve at least 27 years

2nd-degree plea means less time

Staff WriterMarch 5, 2010 

— Forgiveness and guaranteed prison time led Trevor Spain's family to spare his killer a first-degree murder trial Thursday in Durham County Superior Court.

Spain, 41, and Jameel Rasaun Thornton were in the basement of the Shepherd Street home Spain shared with his father on Dec. 26, 2008, when Thornton, 29, said Spain made a sexual advance at him.

"Although most of us would probably have the presence of mind to get up and leave, unfortunately that is not what happened," Thornton's attorney, Shannon Tucker, said during the hearing. "The reason that's not what happened, a lot of it has to do with Mr. Thornton's background."

An abusive childhood, drug use, and mental disorders including schizophrenia led Thornton to make a bad decision, Tucker said.

It also kept him from the jury trial.

"There are a lot of psychological issues involved with this case," Durham Assistant District Attorney David Saacks said afterward.

A jury might not have been convinced that Thornton, given his mental state, meant to kill Spain. If he had been convicted, his lawyers could have appealed.

"The family felt with his issues, they didn't want to take that chance," Saacks said of the second-degree plea deal. "It was a definite thing. It gave them closure."

Basement struggle

A struggle ensued in the Shepherd Street basement. Spain sustained 22 knife wounds, including many defensive wounds, Saacks said. A stab wound to the lung and heart killed him.

Spain's death touched many in Durham.

He was heavily involved at Morehead Avenue Baptist Church and was planning a large family reunion when he was killed. The 900-seat church that held his funeral was already packed as a line of family members stretched from the pulpit to the sidewalk.

His casket was carried through downtown on a black carriage drawn by two large black Percheron horses.

Cell phone calls

Days before the January 2009 funeral, Thornton and his brother, Juan, were using Spain's two cell phones, which were taken from his home. One of Juan Thornton's calls was to a cousin of Spain, who saw her dead relative's name pop up on the caller ID, Saacks said.

Jameel Thornton later told his sister that he was getting high with Spain when he "flipped out" and charged at him with a knife, Saacks said. Spain was killed in self-defense, he told her.

More than 20 family members and friends attended the hearing Thursday. All stood up when Elton O'Neal, one of Spain's cousins, spoke.

"Mr. Thornton, we're saying to you this morning by our presence here that, yes, we are hurt," he said. "We cannot undo what has been done. Some of us have moved towards forgiveness, others are getting there. But we're going to ask our heavenly father to look into our hearts and to look into your heart because all of us will have to stand in judgment."

Before sentencing, Superior Court Judge Ronald Stephens told Thornton he was fortunate to receive prison time that would allow him to go free "and be younger than I am right now."

"I'm not sure I've ever seen a group of people from a victim's family that have been as understanding as this family has been," he said. "That is unusual. I'm sure it's not that they're not hurting and that they're not mad and angry. ... I surely appreciate their ability to give. The state of North Carolina doesn't forgive quite as quickly as they do."

Stephens sentenced Thornton to 27 to 34 years in prison for second-degree murder and robbery with a dangerous weapon. He will also have to pay $25,741.57 in restitution.

Thornton, when he had an opportunity to address the court, said nothing. The only words he spoke were "yes" or "no" answers to Stephens' questions.

stan.chambers@newsobserver.com or 919-932-2025

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