DURHAM — Laurence Alvin Lovette, a 23-year-old man on trial for murder in Durham County Superior Court, stands up each time his lawyer returns to her chair and holds it out until she sits down.
That image of a mannerly gentleman conflicts with prosecutors’ portrayal in the same court — they contend Lovette, already a North Carolina prison inmate, is responsible for the 2008 execution-style death of Duke University graduate student Abhijit Mahato.
Mahato was 29 when he was found dead on Jan. 18, 2008, in his apartment near Duke’s west campus.
Mahato had come to Durham from Tatangar, India, as a graduate student at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering.
Described as a softspoken and polite engineer who loved to read poetry and literature, Mahato was in his second year at Duke studying computational mechanics.
With experience working at the GE Global Research Center, and an understanding of industry that some graduate students did not have, Mahato had hopes of returning to India to teach at the university level, according to his friends.
In his opening statement Friday, Assistant District Attorney Jim Dornfried contended that Lovette ended Mahato’s dreams inside the Anderson Apartment complex with the “intentional, deliberate and premeditated murder of a man who did nothing wrong.”
Mahato was found bloodied and lifeless by friends. Medical examiners said he had been shot between the eyes by a killer who fired a gun through the pillow against his head.
Mahato’s cellphone, wallet and iPod were missing.
Prosecutors say the shooting was not just the result of a robbery gone awry.
“If looks could kill,” Dornfried told the jury during his opening statement, “from the first moment Laurence Lovette laid eyes on Abhijit Mahato … Abhijit was a dead man.”
Defense attorney Karen Bethea-Shields argued that prosecutors had little physical evidence to link Lovette to the Mahato killing. Prosecutors do not have DNA evidence or forensics from the crime scene, prosecutors and the defense team said.
But Lovette had Mahato’s iPod with him when he was arrested and accused of murdering Eve Carson, the UNC-Chapel Hill student body president who was found slain a mile from her off-campus home on March 5, 2008.
Lovette was charged, tried and convicted in 2012 of murdering Carson.
Prosecutors in Durham say the same witness who came forward in the Carson case to expose the involvement of Lovette and DeMario Atwater, another Durham man serving a life sentence for the Chapel Hill case, will provide key evidence in the Mahato case.
Shanita Love, who was Atwater’s girlfriend at the time, has told investigators that she heard Lovette telling her boyfriend that he had left Mahato in the apartment where he shot him, according to prosecutors.
Ingredients of the case
Bethea-Shields, who represented Lovette in 2012 when an Orange County jury considered evidence in the Carson case, urged Durham jurors to clear their minds of any preconceived thoughts they might have of Lovette and approach the Mahato case as if they were looking into food baskets presented to contestants on “Chopped,” the popular Food Network show.
On “Chopped,” contestants are asked to take a mystery basket of ingredients and turn them into a dish that is judged.
On the first day of testimony, Bethea-Shields said, the jury did not yet know what evidence prosecutors would present, a mystery that would be revealed in the coming weeks of the trial. As they might on “Chopped,” Bethea-Shields urged jurors to determine whether the testimony they hear is “credible evidence or not credible.”
“You have to determine if that was a good ingredient or a bad ingredient,” Bethea-Shields said.
“There are various people that will say things about Mr. Lovette – that he was involved,” she added in her brief opening statement. “These same people on different dates will say he wasn’t involved.”
Similar arguments were made in the Carson case, but the jury returned guilty verdicts on murder, robbery and kidnapping charges.
Though the homicides occurred weeks apart, and the investigations were conducted by two different police departments, investigators shared details.
Earlier this week, Bethea-Shields complained that prosecutors had waited until this week to provide the defense team with police notes taken by a Chapel Hill detective who interviewed Love.
But Jim Hardin, the Durham County Superior Court judge presiding over the case, found that defense lawyers had not provided sufficient evidence to show that the Durham District Attorney’s office or Durham police had intentionally withheld information.
The judge plans to limit testimony about the note, but he added that information in the detective’s accounting of the interview was echoed in other police reports and witness statements that had come to the defense team for the Mahato and Carson cases.
The trial will continue Monday with prosecutors calling witnesses.
Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe1