A superior court judge Tuesday sentenced Roderick Duncan to at least 36 years in prison after he pleaded guilty to the shooting deaths of four men at a townhouse on the south side of Durham nearly 11 years ago.
Duncan has been charged with four counts of first-degree murder for the execution-style shootings since 2006. Prosecutors have put off bringing him to trial in the case in part because he was in federal prison on drug charges until Jan. 9, 2015.
Tuesday, Duncan, 36, pleaded guilty to four counts of second-degree murder, which allowed him to avoid a possible sentence of death or life in prison. He was given credit for the 592 days he has already been behind bars on the murder charges, meaning he has a little more than 34 years to go on his prison sentence.
Police initially thought that three men were involved in the shooting inside the townhouse on Alpine Road in late November 2005. On Tuesday, Durham District Attorney Roger Echols suggested there were four. Echols, now in his second year as district attorney, said another reason prosecutors took so long to bring Duncan’s case to court is that they had been trying to build a stronger case against all of the people they think were involved in the quadruple homicide.
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Echols did not name the other suspects. Of the others who may have been involved, he said, “two are dead themselves.” As for “the other one,” he said, the case is still under investigation.
The four men found dead inside the townhouse were Jonathan Skinner, 26, of Raleigh and Lennis Harris Jr., 27, Jamel Holloway, 27, and LaJuan Coleman, 27, all of Durham. The men were all shot in the head, their faces so badly maimed that one had to be identified by a tattoo.
Early on in the criminal investigation the victims’ families struggled to come to terms with what police said fueled the shootings: a drug-related robbery. The crime was not random. Duncan was friends with several of the victims, dating back to when they were children.
In court Tuesday, Coleman’s mother, Sandra Coleman, called out to Duncan when she spoke before his sentencing.
“Rod, because you’re just like a son to me. Why?” she asked Duncan. “He was your best friend. You ate my food. You drove my car. And you took his life, your friend’s life. For what?”
Coleman asked Duncan, a wiry man with a new haircut, to “look at me,” and he did, his dark eyes threatening tears.
Also speaking before the sentence was pronounced, Lennis Harris Sr. called out Duncan for killing people he knew.
“I can’t understand how a man can shoot people that they know, that they grew up with,” Harris said. “Look them in the eye, lay them down and shoot them in the head.”
Duncan’s attorney, Amos Tyndal, said Duncan accepted full responsibility, but his client – who will observe his 37th birthday Saturday – would not speak in court because nothing he could say would honor the memories of the victims.
“He’s as remorseful as any person I’ve represented,” Tyndal said.
Harris’s birth mother, Marcia Harris, told Duncan that her son’s death left her whole world shattered, but that God had put it in her heart to forgive him.
“God had another purpose for your life, and I don’t think it was to be a murderer,” she said. “Let them see that God has given you another chance. Ask God to prick your heart and let you be an example.”
‘Why are you doing this?’
Family members said the victims had spent the day at an N.C. Central University football game before gathering to hang out at a two-bedroom townhouse in the quiet Breckenridge complex where Harris and Coleman were roommates.
When police arrived about 9:36 p.m. after reports of gunshots, they were met by Corey Upchurch, who escaped the gunfire by jumping out a window, Echols said.
Upchurch told the police that six men had gotten together at the townhouse to play a video game when the doorbell rang. Coleman answered.
Three men in ski masks walked into the apartment and robbed everyone. One of the assailants asked, “Where is it?” and the gunmen were “directed” to marijuana inside the home, Echols said.
When Coleman asked, “Why are you doing this?” the gunmen ordered them to an upstairs bedroom, where they were pistol whipped and told to get on the floor, face-down. The masked men turned the music up loud, then began shooting each victim multiple times in the head.
One gunman ran out of bullets while shooting Alex Shuler, which is when Upchurch jumped out the window to seek help. Shortly after seeing Upchurch, police found Shuler, wounded, in the front yard.
Upchurch told the officers there were four more people upstairs who had been shot. Police found blood on the floor, splattered up the stairway walls, and marijuana scattered across the floor before walking into the rear bedroom carnage.