HILLSBOROUGH — Eve Carson turned to her attackers shortly before her death and asked them to pray with her, according to testimony Tuesday in Orange County Superior Court.
That painful detail emerged from an account of Carson's last hours delivered by Jayson McNeil, 20, a former Durham crack dealer and an acquaintance of the two men accused of her murder.
One of the men, DeMario Atwater, has pleaded guilty. The second man, 21-year-old Laurence Alvin Lovette, entered a plea of not guilty and is on trial, accused of kidnapping, robbing and murdering Carson, the 2008 UNC student body president.
From the stand, McNeil related what he said Lovette told him in the days after Carson's death on March 5, 2008. He said Lovette and Atwater rushed Carson as she approached her Toyota Highlander outside the Chapel Hill home she shared with three other UNC students. Atwater brandished a shotgun and forced Carson into the back seat of her vehicle, then Atwater got in next to her and Lovette took the wheel, he said. As her attackers drove her around Chapel Hill and Durham in the pre-dawn hours, Carson was "pleading and begging for her life," McNeil testified in the fifth day of Lovette's trial.
McNeil testified that Lovette, who he knew from the neighborhood and school, told him he shot Carson five times, once more than prosecutors contend. Atwater, according to McNeil, stood over Carson and fired the shotgun blast that a medical examiner said was immediately fatal.
McNeil was a crack dealer at the time, he said. He had a reputation in some Durham neighborhoods as a guy with quick access to cars.
A panicked conversation
On March 12, 2008, McNeil said he got a call from Lovette, asking for a ride.
McNeil agreed to provide his account of a conversation the two had during that ride in exchange for immunity from prosecutors and a lighter sentence in his federal drug case.
Lovette was panicky on the phone that March afternoon, McNeil said.
"He kept saying, 'They got him. They got him,' " McNeil recalled. "That meant they got Rio."
Rio, or DeMario Atwater, the 25-year-old Durham man who pleaded guilty last year to carjacking, kidnapping, robbing and murdering Carson, had just been arrested by police.
Lovette was scared and nervous when he got in the car, McNeil said.
"He explained to me that Rio was going to tell," McNeil added.
McNeil said Lovette eventually gave him an account of his trip to Chapel Hill on March 5, 2008.
Lovette's defense team contends that key witnesses for the prosecution have "motive" and "bias" for implicating their client.
Some have been charged with crimes and are seeking lighter sentences. Others could be charged with crimes and have been granted immunity.
McNeil, who has a lengthy police record and recently pleaded guilty to drug charges in federal court, testified that he struck a deal with prosecutors in hopes of getting a lighter sentence,
"I just figured I could help myself (by) coming forward," he said.
A plan to 'Go rob'
McNeil was the first witness to offer details of how Carson encountered her attackers.
McNeil had turned down a request from Lovette the night before Carson's death asking for a ride to Chapel Hill to "go rob."
"I told him I was in the house with my girlfriend and I wasn't going to be able to do it," McNeil recounted. "He told me he had Rio with him."
Carson, according to McNeil, was heading toward her Toyota Highlander when Lovette and Atwater "rushed the car."
Prosecutors say Carson had been working on a paper for school in the early morning hours and could have been heading toward her student government office on the UNC-CH campus to use the printers or copy machines.
After the pair abducted Carson, McNeil said, Atwater was in the back seat "touching" Carson.
At one point during the harrowing ride, Carson pleaded with her abductors, McNeil said.
"Before she was even shot, she was saying let's pray together," McNeil testified.
Carson's parents, who have been in the front row of the courtroom gallery each day of testimony, have listened stoically to witnesses' chilling and graphic accounts of their daughter's final hours.
Jurors dabbed at tears with tissue on Tuesday as the medical examiner who performed the autopsy of Carson showed enlarged pictures of the five gunshot wounds.
Carson, according to Dr. Cynthia Gardner, was alive and would have been mobile and able to talk after receiving four wounds from a handgun.
The shotgun blast to her right temple, she said, was immediately fatal.
Carson, 22, a UNC-CH senior from Athens, Ga., was found lying in the street of a Chapel Hill neighborhood about 5 a.m.
No place to hide
On the day Carson's body was found, McNeil said, he met Lovette at a Durham convenience store around lunchtime.
"He told me he had a card," McNeil said. "He explained to me that it had a lot of money on it. He told me to meet him at the store."
Lovette, according to McNeil, was not able to withdraw money from Carson's account at that store.
Prosecutors contend that Lovette and Atwater withdrew $700 from Carson's account - reaching her daily limit - during the last hour of her life.
Twenty-four hours had not passed when the withdrawal attempt was made at the Durham convenience store, so no money was provided, Bank of America officials testified.
McNeil said he and Lovette left the store but ran into a carload of trouble soon after.
They had an altercation with some guys they knew from school, McNeil said, but Lovette showed a handgun and the car sped away.
On March 12, a week after the shooting, McNeil said he drove Lovette around looking for a place where the defendant could hide.
Women shooed them away from one Durham home, saying Lovette was not welcome. Lovette was arrested hours later.
Lovette sat quietly as McNeil testified.
McNeil did not look toward the defendant as bailiffs ushered him out of the courtroom, back into federal custody, where he awaits sentencing in his drug case.