DURHAM — Latifah White brought an urn containing her sisters 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, Whites 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 citys 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 wont get an unbiased or fair trial, Dorman told Hudson.
Dormans 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 Dormans case.
In that 2011 dismissal, Hudson issued a 69-page order in which he accused the Durham County District Attorneys Office, the Durham Police Department and the state medical examiners office of conspiring to destroy evidence and violating Dormans 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 defendants 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 Fridays plea deal as a compromise for both sides.
As Boxleys 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 didnt 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 Examiners Office examined the skull and other bones contained in the backpack that Dorman was arrested with and identified them as Boxleys 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 Boxleys 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 Hudsons 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.
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.
Boxleys 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 sisters 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.