A Wake County jury spared the life of a man convicted of two counts of first-degree murder Wednesday, instead sentencing him to two life sentences.
The jury of 10 men and two women determined that 11 mitigating circumstances carried more weight than the aggravating factors of burglary and robbery during the 2014 home invasion.
Prosecutors had sought the death penalty for Donovan Jevonte Richardson, 24, who was found guilty Friday in the first-degree felony murders of Arthur Lee Brown, 74, a popular construction company owner, and David Eugene McKoy, 66, Brown’s longtime friend and employee.
This case marks the ninth capital trial since 2008 in Wake County that resulted in a life sentence instead of death.
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Among the mitigating factors the jury used to spare Richardson’s life were his age and his father’s refusal to acknowledge that Richardson was his son until after a paternity test. They also thought it was important that Richardson’s family offered assurances that the convicted killer would have a relationship with his sons, ages 3 and 7, while he spends the rest of his life in prison. And jurors concluded that sentencing Richardson to death could have a detrimental impact on his sons.
Jury members determined that Richardson did not plan to kill anyone during the burglary and robbery at Brown’s Fuquay-Varina home on July 18, 2014. Nor did Richardson agree with the decision of his co-conspirator, Gregory Crawford, to kill McKoy, according to the list of issues and recommendations that jurors reviewed before reaching their verdict.
The jurors said they thought Richardson was under mental duress when he shot Brown, who reportedly raised a .38 revolver in self-defense before he was fatally shot three times.
Shortly after the jury’s decision Wednesday, Gretchen M. Engel, executive director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham, pointed out that while Wake County has more frequent capital trials than any other county in North Carolina, support for the death penalty across the nation fell to its lowest point in 45 years in 2017.
She noted that Wake is the only county in the state where a defendant has been tried capitally every year for the past three years. During the same period, since the beginning of 2016, there have been only 10 capital trials – and a single death sentence – in all 100 N.C. counties.
“The reality is, it just doesn’t make sense to pursue the death penalty in Wake County,” Engel stated in a news release. “Juries have made it crystal clear that they no longer want to impose death sentences, and these costly protracted trials benefit no one.”
Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said each case is different when asked whether the jury’s decision Wednesday would prompt her office to rethink which cases to pursue capitally.
“The jury in this case deliberately and methodically considered the evidence and we appreciate their service,” Freeman wrote in an email to The News & Observer. “As the prosecution stated in the closing [argument], this case represented what many would consider their worst nightmare – being brutally killed at night in the safety of their bed. North Carolina law continues to provide that the death penalty is the maximum penalty under the law. Our office works hard to consider each case based on the evidence and to apply the law. We do not take lightly the determination that a case will be capitally pursued, and we will weigh the outcome of this case and others, among other factors, as we make these decisions and continue to seek justice for the families of these terrible tragedies.”
Before imposing the sentence Wednesday, Superior Court Judge Graham Shirley asked Richardson to stand for one minute and think. Richardson stood and stared straight ahead in the silent courtroom.
At the end of the minute, Shirley told Richardson that he would soon leave the courtroom, return to his jail cell and gather his belongings to begin life at Central Prison.
“You have a life expectancy of 52.35 years,” Shirley told Richardson. “The next 27.5 million seconds of your life, that’s where you will be – never ever to be a free man.”
In closing arguments in the sentencing phase of the trial Tuesday, Wake prosecutors made an impassioned plea that Richardson deserved the death penalty because burglary and robbery for cash and guns were aggravating factors in the case.
But defense attorney Richard Gammon countered that prosecutors were unable to present evidence showing that Richardson was even in the Fuquay-Varina home the night Brown and McKoy were shot and killed.
Crawford was sentenced to life in prison. A third accomplice, Kevin Bernard Britt, waited outside in a vehicle for the burglars. Britt has not gone to trial but has been cooperating with the prosecution and could be sentenced to a minimum of 52 months in prison.
The last time Wake jurors imposed a death sentence was in 2007, when Bryan Lamar Waring was convicted for the first-degree murder of Lauren Redman, 22, of Knightdale.