North Carolina

In Durham, where most gun charges are dismissed, one suspect got break after break

Paris Kelly said he’ll never forget the night a bearded man robbed his friend and fired a handgun near their feet. What he didn’t realize is that the robbery suspect was one of Durham’s most frequently arrested gun offenders.

Since 2008, Ronald D. Lloyd has been charged with more than two dozen gun crimes. Prosecutors dismissed most of them.

Lloyd’s experiences illustrate a broader pattern: Those charged with gun crimes in Durham County get more breaks than most, a Charlotte Observer investigation found.

Ronald D. Lloyd_fitted.jpeg
Ronald D. Lloyd N.C. Department of Public Safety

From 2014 through 2018, prosecutors dismissed nearly 58 percent of all weapons charges in the county, the newspaper found. That’s a higher percentage than all of North Carolina’s other large urban counties but Mecklenburg. Statewide, about half of all weapons charges are dropped.

Among Lloyd’s alleged crimes:

In 2014, Lloyd was accused of robbing a 25-year-old man at gunpoint, stealing $200 in cash, along with a rifle, watch and jewelry valued at $2,750. When Durham police eventually tracked Lloyd down, more than a month later, he was hiding under a porch. A prosecutor dismissed the case because the witness did not show up for an appointment with the District Attorney’s office and said he did not want to testify.

In May 2015, police said, Lloyd broke into an apartment and shot a man, seriously injuring him. A prosecutor dismissed the charges almost a year later, stating in a court document: “On this date for the first time the victim has indicated he no longer can identify this defendant as the person that shot him.”

In September 2016, Lloyd tried to take a man’s money and, when he would not let go of his cash, dragged him almost half a mile with his jeep, Durham police said. Lloyd also threatened to shoot the man, according to the arrest warrant.

The victim crawled home and was later treated for numerous injuries. Police charged Lloyd with robbery with a dangerous weapon and assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury. Prosecutors dismissed the charges because the victim was not available to testify.

Paris Kelly and his friend had their violent encounter when they were walking near Durham’s homeless shelter in January 2013.

He said a bearded man — who police later identified as Lloyd — stole his friend’s cellphone and wallet and attempted to rifle through Kelly’s pockets, as well.

Kelly pushed the man away. At that point, Kelly said, the man brought out a large revolver and fired twice into the ground, inches from his feet.

Kelly told the Observer the man shot three more times into the air as he and his friend ran.

“It was definitely a fight or flight situation,” said Kelly, who now works for a private armed security firm.

A prosecutor dismissed the charges five months later because a civilian witness was no longer available, court records show.

Lloyd has spent about four years in prison since 2008 for various crimes, including drug possession, larceny and possession of a firearm by a felon. But most of his weapons charges have been dismissed.

Lloyd did not respond to letters sent to him in prison, where he is now doing time for larceny.

Criminal history

Court records show that Lloyd’s public criminal history goes back to 2007, when he turned 16. From 2008 to present, Lloyd, 28, faced a range of weapons and other misdemeanor and felony charges, from eight to more than 20 each year.

In 2018, Lloyd faced about 20 charges. Under a plea deal, he pleaded to six felonies and seven charges were dismissed. He was sentenced to from 2.5 to 4.5 years, under the April 2019 plea deal.

Seven other charges were dismissed by prosecutors.

Former Durham District Attorney Roger Echols, who lost his 2018 reelection bid, said last year that prosecuting gun crimes was often tough when victims and witnesses didn’t want to testify.

A shortage of prosecutors also hampered the office, Echols said. His office had 21 prosecutors, but needed two or three more “just to handle those types of cases,” he said.

District Attorney Satana Deberry declined an interview for this article, saying the cases were handled under a previous administration.

A statement from Deberry’s office said she is committed to prosecuting serious crimes.

Deberry dedicated more resources and reorganized her office around the prosecution of homicides, violent crimes, sexual assaults, and domestic violence and created special victims unit, the statement said.

Deberry also started working with law enforcement before filing charges in some homicide cases to ensure there is enough evidence to support a conviction. The change is intended to reduce the number of dismissed murder charges.

From January to August, Deberry obtained convictions for 20 people facing homicide charges. Charges were dismissed against 11 others for lack of evidence or for federal prosecution.

“This office does not dismiss credible weapons possession charges when they accompany domestic violence offenses or when the weapon is discovered pursuant to a domestic violence call,” the statement said.

When prosecuting illegal possession of firearms charges, the DA’s office considers whether the gun is alleged to have been used and other charges.

“When that charge is filed alone, the DA’s office considers whether a person is truly a danger to our community, which is not indicated by his or her status as a person with a prior felony conviction,” the statement said.

‘Instant amnesia’

Longtime Durham defense attorneys said various factors contribute to the weapon offenses dismissals.

The reasons include problems with evidence, witnesses and - under Echols - an increase in programs that give qualified individuals second chances.

Regardless of the reason, when charges are dropped or reduced it often leads some people to believe the system is more lenient than it is, said Daniel Meier a defense attorney who ran against Echols and Deberry in 2018 and is running for City Council.

“There is a perception problem,” he said. “Even if we can nuance them away or explain them away, what the public is seeing is ‘Hey, you got a 50-50 chance of beating a weapons charge. And the people on the street pay attention a lot more than people think.”

Echols implemented programs that encouraged alternatives to prosecution, including against young offenders who can face adult criminal charges at 16 and 17. For example, prosecutors might dismiss a low-level weapons charge, such as a firearm on school grounds, to give the teen a second chance, Meier said.

Witness intimation and law enforcement’s strained relationships with communities also reduce witness cooperation, Meier said.

Lisa Williams, a longtime Durham defense attorney, said some witnesses may speak to police immediately following a crime, but often don’t show up for follow up conversations and court appearances.

“Instant amnesia,” Williams said. “If they saw them at all, they are going to forget they saw them.”

As a defense attorney, it is Williams’ job to take advantage of those weaknesses in those cases and call for a bond reduction until the DA’s office dismisses the charges.

“That is hard to show in statistics,” Williams said.

Jim Stuit, Durham County’s gang reduction strategy manager, has studied gang-related shootings and arrests and recently released a report that indicated Durham County dismissed 53 percent of firearm by felon charges from 2012 to 2018 and suggested that the county should track why that is occurring.

Stuit said he has seen many cases that are similar to Lloyd’s and, he is curious about some of the driving factors behind the dismissals of so many charges.

It’s one thing to give someone a break, he said, but “if we are going to be a city that is going to get tough on crime,” and stop the shootings “then it’s laughable in what we are actually doing in the court system to deter that behavior.”

The News & Observer reporters David Raynor and Andrew Carter contributed to this story.

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Virginia Bridges covers criminal justice in Orange and Durham counties for The Herald-Sun and The News & Observer. She has worked for newspapers for more than 15 years. In 2017, the N.C. Press Association awarded her first place for beat feature reporting. The N.C. State Bar Association awarded her the 2018 Media & Law Award for Best Series.
Ames Alexander, an investigative reporter for the Observer, has examined corruption in state prisons, the mistreatment of injured poultry workers and many other subjects. His stories have won dozens of state and national awards. He was a key member of two reporting teams that were named Pulitzer finalists.