Durham man accused of carrying woman's remains in backpack accepts sentence for manslaughter

ablythe@newsobserver.comJune 28, 2013 

  • How the case unfolded

    Michael Charles Dorman was arrested in July 2010 in Orange County after law enforcement officers say they intercepted him trying to hand off a backpack containing bones to another man.

    Dorman’s acquaintance had told police that Dorman claimed to have shot a woman with a shotgun and needed to move her remains.

    Police initially charged Dorman with concealing human remains, but that charge was upgraded to first-degree murder in a case that was one of three that former District Attorney Tracey Cline mentioned in a series of strident rebukes of Judge Orlando Hudson in 2011.

    Hudson, Durham County’s chief resident superior court judge, dismissed the murder charge against Dorman in the fall of 2011 and issued a 69-page order accusing the Durham County District Attorney’s Office, the Durham Police Department and the state medical examiner’s office of conspiring to destroy evidence and violating Dorman’s rights to a fair trial.

    In February 2013, the state Court of Appeals reversed Hudson’s decision and sent the case back for trial.

    While the case was on appeal, Cline was ousted from office.

    In March 2012, Judge Robert Hobgood found that Cline had “brought the office of the Durham County District Attorney and the entire Durham County justice system into disrepute.”

    Cline had described Hudson’s dismissal of the Dorman case and others as “an extreme abuse of power” and the beginning of a “corrupt” smear campaign against her. She said Hudson had engaged in “moral turpitude, dishonesty and corruption.”

    Cline contended that Hudson was working in league with The News & Observer to “demean the district attorney at all costs.” The N&O published “Twisted Truth: A Prosecutor Under Attack,” a 2011 investigative series that highlighted prosecutions by Cline that were under scrutiny in various levels of the courts.

    Since then, Cline has appealed her ouster and sued The News & Observer for publishing a series that she contended “twisted the truth” about her.

    Both cases remain unresolved in the courts.

    Dorman pleaded guilty on Friday to voluntary manslaughter. Though he did not acknowledge guilt, he admitted there was enough evidence for a jury to come to that conclusion.

    Judge Hudson, who described the result as a “just resolution,” sentenced Dorman to at least 61 months in prison. He gets credit for the nearly three years he has served.

— Latifah White brought an urn containing her sister’s remains into a Durham County courtroom Friday, determined to remind the lawyers, the judge and others what had brought them all together.

Lakiea Lacole Boxley, White’s sister, went missing in 2008, leaving her family to wonder what had become of the then 31-year-old woman who, despite some struggles, dreamed of being a dancer.

On Friday, Michael Dorman, a 33-year-old Mebane man with mental health issues, was sentenced to at least five years in prison for the voluntary manslaughter of Boxley.

Dorman rose before Orlando Hudson, the chief resident Superior Court judge, in an orange jail uniform. His curly, shoulder-length hair was pulled back in a pony tail. The city’s chief public defender, Lawrence Campbell, was by his side in a case that was unusual from the start.

Not only was Dorman arrested in July 2010 with skeletal remains in a backpack, but his case was one of three that former Durham District Attorney Tracey Cline mentioned in a series of court documents filed in 2011 that were the underpinnings of a rare legal process used to remove her from elected office.

“I am not pleading guilty out of guilt but out of fear I won’t get an unbiased or fair trial,” Dorman told Hudson.

Dorman’s plea, in which he used a legal procedure acknowledging there was enough evidence to lead a jury to a conclusion of guilt, came nearly two years after Hudson had first dismissed Dorman’s case.

In that 2011 dismissal, Hudson issued a 69-page order in which he accused the Durham County District Attorney’s Office, the Durham Police Department and the state medical examiner’s office of conspiring to destroy evidence and violating Dorman’s rights to a fair trial.

The state Court of Appeals sent the case back for trial this year, stating that Hudson erred by “prematurely concluding the defendant’s ability to prepare a defense was so irreparably prejudiced that a dismissal of the charge … was the only appropriate remedy.”

‘Lightning in a bottle’

On Friday, Roger Echols, the assistant district attorney who negotiated the plea agreement, described Friday’s plea deal as a “compromise” for both sides.

As Boxley’s family sat behind him with the urn containing her ashes, Echols said Dorman told law enforcement officers that the remains in the backpack were of a woman he met at a gas station in Durham.

Dorman said he had given a woman whose name he did not know $20 on three occasions to have sex with him. On one occasion, the prosecutor said, the woman visited Dorman and was so heavily under the influence of drugs that she refused to have sex with him, angering him. Echols said Dorman told an investigator he then shot Boxley in the head with a shotgun.

When that didn’t kill her, he strangled her and put her body in a suitcase, Echols said.

Campbell, the public defender, was critical of the Durham police investigation. He contended that the initial charge of concealing human remains was the right one in this case. When the decision was made to upgrade the charge to murder, Campbell said, it was essentially “trying to capture lightning in a bottle.”

“The state cannot prove who this woman was, where the body was found (or) where the body was murdered,” Campbell said. “The state has allowed and assisted in the destruction of evidence.”

Release of remains

The N.C. Medical Examiner’s Office examined the skull and other bones contained in the backpack that Dorman was arrested with and identified them as Boxley’s based on dental records. Then, after several exchanges with a Durham law enforcement officer, the medical examiner released all but a skull fragment from the remains to Boxley’s sister, who had them cremated.

Campbell objected at the time, arguing that all the bones from the backpack were evidence that should not have been destroyed.

Hudson agreed and used those details and other complaints about the Durham police investigation as the underpinnings of his order to dismiss the case in 2011.

Cline, who was ousted from office in March 2012, described Hudson’s dismissal of the Dorman case and others as “an extreme abuse of power” and the beginning of a “corrupt” smear campaign against her. She said Hudson had engaged in “moral turpitude, dishonesty and corruption.”

Cline contended that Hudson was working in league with The News & Observer to “demean the district attorney at all costs.” The N&O published “Twisted Truth: A Prosecutor Under Attack,” a 2011 investigative series that highlighted prosecutions by Cline that were under scrutiny in various levels of the courts.

Cline has challenged her ouster and is awaiting a ruling from the state Court of Appeals.

‘Just resolution’

Hudson said in court Friday that he thought the voluntary manslaughter plea was a “just resolution” in the case.

He ordered a mental health evaluation for Dorman in prison and gave him credit for the nearly three years he has already served behind bars.

Boxley’s family, though, was disappointed with the outcome.

Boxley, born on Oct. 10, 1976, in Jersey City, N.J., was described as a loving sister and aunt. In a statement read by the assistant district attorney, White said she was angry at Dorman for carrying her sister’s remains in a book bag when the family was looking for her.

“I hope you see her in your sleep,” White said to Dorman in the statement. “I hope she haunts you for the rest of your life.”

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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