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2nd man pleads guilty to fatal beating of UNC-Chapel Hill professor

Betsy Houston pauses for a moment after leaving flowers at the spot where Feng Liu, 59, a research professor at UNC’s Eshelman School of Pharmacy, was killed. Liu was killed during a robbery on West University Drive near the Ransom Street intersection in Chapel Hill on Thursday. Houston usually parks her car and walks to work along the same route that Liu took his afternoon walk.
Betsy Houston pauses for a moment after leaving flowers at the spot where Feng Liu, 59, a research professor at UNC’s Eshelman School of Pharmacy, was killed. Liu was killed during a robbery on West University Drive near the Ransom Street intersection in Chapel Hill on Thursday. Houston usually parks her car and walks to work along the same route that Liu took his afternoon walk. cliddy@newsobserver.com

A Durham man was sentenced Tuesday to serve up to 34 years in prison for murdering a UNC professor while robbing him near the Chapel Hill campus in 2014.

Derick Davis II, 28, pleaded guilty in Orange County Superior Court to second-degree murder and robbery with a dangerous weapon in the beating death of UNC research professor Feng Liu.

Liu, 59, was hit in the head with a landscaping rock and robbed while on a midday walk through a normally quiet neighborhood near campus. He was taken to UNC Hospitals, where he died the next day.

Davis and his co-defendant, Troy Arrington of Chapel Hill, originally were charged with first-degree murder, armed robbery, assault and common-law robbery.

Arrington, 31, was sentenced last year to life in prison for first-degree murder. He received another 10 to nearly 14 years in prison for robbery with a dangerous weapon. Davis also was facing life in prison if convicted of first-degree murder.

“The state maintains that the defendant and Mr. Arrington were there that day looking for someone to rob, and that Dr. Liu was the unfortunate person,” Orange-Chatham District Attorney Jim Woodall said. “They could have easily taken everything he had and left him unharmed, but they chose to beat him to death.”

Liu’s son-in-law Will Norflett testified during Arrington’s trial that the UNC researcher was “unrecognizable” after the attack.

“I would have never known it was him, if I would have seen him and did not have the context. He looked like his head had been blown up like a balloon,” Norflett said.

Feng Liu
Feng Liu UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy Contributed

The investigation showed the men wandered around the neighborhood that day after being dropped off in Chapel Hill — ostensibly to look for jobs, Woodall said. Arrington initially told investigators that they found Liu on the ground and took his wallet. Davis later blamed Arrington for the attack; Arrington blamed Davis, Woodall said.

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A Chapel Hill town worker driving past just after the attack provided key information in identifying both men, Woodall said. The worker found Arrington and Davis standing near Liu’s body, but realized neither was calling 911 or trying to help.

As a nurse and others who passed by stopped to help, the town worker, who had become suspicious, took photos of both men before they left the scene.

Derek Davis.jpg
Derek Davis Contributed

Officers found Davis a few hours later at the nearby intersection of Cameron Avenue and Merritt Mill Road. As they were talking with him, Davis dropped Liu’s credit cards, Woodall said. They found Liu’s wallet when they searched Davis, he said.

Investigators used an electronic ankle monitor that Arrington was wearing at the time as part of a Durham pretrial release program to track him down.

The crime shook the community, Woodall said, and Liu’s family, who welcomed his first granddaughter about three months after the murder. His wife has since moved to the mountains to be near their daughter’s family, he said.

They weren’t able to attend the hearing, but Woodall submitted a statement from Norflett to Superior Court Judge Allen Baddour. The statement was was not made public.

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Baddour thanked Davis’ family for being in the courtroom to show their love and support, and told Davis: “I hope it means something.”

Baddour also urged Davis, who has a young son, to think about his decisions and help his friends and family see why his choices were wrong.

“This is a tragedy that did not need to happen. It’s shocking. It is impossible to understand how anyone could be a part of these events,” Baddour said. “Even more confusing on some level for a man who appears by all accounts to be intelligent and have a good family.”

The Chinese community in the Triangle has felt threatened for years as small business owners have been repeatedly robbed at gunpoint at their businesses and homes. One group is training for self defense with thorough firearms training and practice.

Grubb: 919-829-8926; @TammyGrubb
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