Murder charge dropped against man accused in 2008 shooting of Duke graduate student

ablythe@newsobserver.comFebruary 22, 2013 

jv8bnj89

Stephen Lavance Oates, 24 (shown in 2009 arrest mug) no longer faces murder accusations but he still stands accused of assault charges in a string of robberies.

DURHAM POLICE DEPT.

— Prosecutors have dismissed a murder charge against one of two men accused of killing Abhijit Mahato, the Duke University graduate student found dead in his apartment in January 2008.

Stephen Lavance Oates, 24, no longer faces murder accusations, but he is still charged with assault in a string of robberies.

The murder dismissal leaves Laurence Alvin Lovette, 22, the only man accused of killing Mahato. Lovette, who grew up in Durham, is in prison after being convicted of murdering Eve Carson, the UNC-Chapel Hill student body president who was kidnapped, robbed and shot to death in Chapel Hill in March 2008.

The two deaths in early 2008 rocked two university communities – in Durham and Chapel Hill.

Mahato, an engineering graduate student from Bengal, India, was found dead Jan. 18, 2008, shot between the eyes by a killer who fired a gun through a pillow, according to autopsy reports.

Gun connects crimes

Oates was arrested five days later and accused in the homicide, which Durham police stated was part of a citywide robbery spree.

Mahato was fatally wounded with a 9 mm handgun that investigators said was a ballistics match to the weapon used to shoot two robbery victims in their legs.

But investigators looking into the Carson homicide collected evidence that turned suspicions toward Lovette. He was charged with murder in the Mahato case on March 17, four days after he was arrested and charged with murdering Carson.

Prosecutors have contended that three small transactions were made with Mahato’s ATM card. Surveillance photos from those places led investigators to a white car, prosecutors said in a hearing several years ago. Those photos also linked Lovette to the Mahato case, although there was no elaboration as to how.

Several calls from Mahato’s cellphone also were made after the homicide, prosecutors said at a 2008 hearing, to friends of Lovette. Lovette and Oates had shared living quarters from time to time, prosecutors contended at the time, but did not further elaborate on that, either.

Missing witness

Jim Dornfried, an assistant district attorney in Durham, stated in the order for dismissal of Oates’s murder charge that Durham investigators no longer could locate a witness who was key to their case.

Without identifying the witness, Dornfried stated that investigators had made numerous attempts to find the person – searching databases, talking with people in the community and using other investigative tactics. That witness, according to the statement, was the one who initially led investigators to Oates, when he was 19 and living in Durham.

Without that witness identifying Oates as the assailant who “had possession of” and “fired” the weapon that had been linked forensically to the robbery and assault of Mahato, prosecutors had “no other available and admissible evidence,” the document for dismissal states.

Efforts to reach Dornfried on Friday were unsuccessful.

Mark Edwards, the Durham lawyer who represented Oates, had been lobbying for more than a year to have the case thrown out. Oates served time in prison from 2008 to 2011 for common law robberies, breaking and entering and larceny, according to Department of Corrections records.

On Friday, Edwards said he was glad the district attorney’s office had agreed to dismiss the murder case against Oates. He described the case as one illustrating a troubling pattern in the Durham police department.

Too often, Edwards said, investigators home in on a suspect first and then try to force the evidence to match that theory instead of following up on leads that might lead them to someone else or a different theory. “I hope the Durham police department will take a lesson from this and go and find the person who did it,” Edwards said.

Blythe: 919-836-4948

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service