DURHAM — Laurence Alvin Lovette sat between his defense attorneys at a table in Superior Court, his red prison jumpsuit a reminder of the life sentence he already is serving.
The 23-year-old from Durham, convicted in 2011 of murdering UNC-Chapel Hill student body president Eve Carson, faces a second murder trial in July that could bring another prison sentence.
Lovette is accused of killing Abhijit Mahato, a Duke University graduate student found dead in his apartment in January 2008, nearly a month before Carson was gunned down in Chapel Hill.
Lovette entered a not-guilty plea on Wednesday, opting to go to trial instead of accept a plea deal offered by prosecutors in the Mahato case.
Karen Bethea-Shields, one of Lovette’s attorneys, would not elaborate on the prison term prosecutors had offered the defendant to avoid another trial.
After a brief hearing Wednesday, Bethea-Shields reiterated what Lovette has said before: “He’s looking forward to his day in court.”
On Wednesday, during a partial day in court, Judge Jim Hardin rejected Lovette’s request to move his trial to Elizabeth City or Wilmington. Months ago, Bethea-Shields argued for the venue change, contending that publicity on the Mahato and Carson cases had hampered her client’s ability to get a fair trial on his home turf.
Hardin did not elaborate on his ruling against that request Wednesday, but he said he planned to prepare a long order detailing his decision.
2 charged initially
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.
Durham police initially charged a different suspect in the homicide case, accusing Stephen Lavance Oates, an acquaintance of Lovette’s. Durham police stated at the time that the homicide 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, 2008, 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 car and also linked Lovette to the Mahato case, although there has been little 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.
The murder charge against Oates was dismissed this past February.
Dornfried, an assistant district attorney in Durham, stated in that order for dismissal that investigators no longer could locate a witness who was key to their case. 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, the document for dismissal stated, prosecutors had “no other available and admissable evidence” about who “had possession of” and “fired” the weapon that had been linked forensically to the robbery and assault of Mahato.
It remains unclear whether that statement will have a larger impact on the Lovette trial. Oates could be called as a witness.
During the hearing Wednesday, both the prosecutor and defense attorneys acknowledged that Lovette had been offered a plea deal to avoid a trial expected to last three weeks. Neither side would discuss the details of the plea proposal.
Sentencing test case
Lovette, who was 17 at the time of the Mahato homicide and the Carson murder, falls into a range of defendants who no longer can automatically receive a lifetime prison term even if convicted of first-degree murder.
The nation’s highest court ruled in June 2012 that an automatic sentence of life without possibility of parole for people who were younger than 18 when they committed murder was “cruel and unusual punishment” and a violation of the Eighth Amendment.
States were forced to change laws because of that ruling.
In North Carolina, a judge now must hold a sentencing hearing to consider mitigating factors before issuing a life sentence with no possibility for parole if the person convicted of premeditated murder was younger than 18 at the time of the crime.
Lovette had such a hearing for his conviction in the Carson murder case, but he has appealed that decision to the N.C. Court of Appeals.
Lovette’s appeal would be the first heard by North Carolina appellate judges, and it would be a test of the legislative action taken in this state after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
North Carolina’s amendment to sentencing laws in 2011 grants young lifers parole review after 25 years. It also requires judges to consider when imposing punishment such factors as age, immaturity, intellectual capacity, mental health history, and the influence of familial or peer pressure.
John Keating Wiles, a Raleigh attorney representing Lovette on appeal, argued in court documents filed in October that the sentencing judge had ignored such factors in June when imposing the life sentence. Wiles contends that Lovette’s life sentence for the Carson murder should be vacated and sent back to Orange County with instructions for a judge to impose a sentence of “life with parole.”
With questions about sentencing in that case lingering, prosecutors unaffiliated with the Mahato case have said the possibility of the appeal bringing a lesser sentence than life could weigh on Durham prosecutors.
Ultimately, an appellate decision could have an impact on far more than the Lovette case. His could be the first to test a new law on how young offenders in North Carolina are sentenced for murder.
“We’ll see what happens there,” Bethea-Shields said Wednesday.
Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe1