CHAPEL HILL - Laurence Alvin Lovette will get another chance to try to convince a judge that he should not spend the rest of his life in prison for murdering Eve Carson, the 2008 UNC-Chapel Hill student body president.
The state Court of Appeals on Tuesday issued a ruling that sends the case back to Orange County Superior Court for a new sentencing hearing on the murder charge.
But the 22-year-old convicted murderer could very well receive the same sentence he did on Dec. 20, 2011, when seven men and five women found him guilty in Orange County Superior Court of kidnapping, robbery and premeditated murder.
At that time, Judge Allen Baddour sentenced Lovette to life in prison without possibility for parole, a sentence that was mandatory in cases of first-degree murder. The judge tacked on at least 28 more years for kidnapping and robbery.
But last June, while Lovette’s case was on appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in a homicide case involving a teenager that could bring relief for the one-time Durham resident.
Lovette was 17 in March 2008, when prosecutors contend he and DeMario Atwater kidnapped Carson, 22, from her home early in the morning. The men forced the accomplished student leader into the backseat of her SUV, drove her to ATMs and withdrew cash from her account.
Carson’s body was found near dawn in the middle of the street in a wooded Chapel Hill neighborhood about a mile from her home and the campus where she was admired by many. She had been shot four times with a handgun and once with a shotgun. Atwater, who is serving life in prison, for murder, kidnapping, robbery and carjacking, fired the shotgun. Lovette fired the first four shots, investigators contended.
James Woodall, the district attorney for Orange and Chatham counties, described Lovette as a “brutal murderer” from whom the public needed to be protected. He urged the judge to give the harshest sentences allowed by law.
The appeals court ruling issued nearly 13 months after Lovette’s trial is rooted in the U.S. Supreme Court decision in June that bars mandatory life sentences for minors convicted of murder.
The country’s highest court ruled that an automatic sentence of life without possibility of parole for people who were younger than 18 when the murder occurred was “cruel and unusual punishment” and a violation of the Eighth Amendment.
Teens, as many in the juvenile justice system point out, do not have fully developed brains, causing some to be at risk for a lack of impulse control.
States across the country were forced to change laws in response to the Supreme Court decision.
In North Carolina, a judge now must hold a sentencing hearing to consider mitigating factors before issuing a life sentence with no possibility for parole if the person convicted of premeditated murder was younger than 18 at the time of the crime.
Juveniles convicted of felony murder, which does not include premeditation, would become eligible for parole after 25 years.
In North Carolina, according to the state Juvenile Defenders Office, there were 60 to 80 people in prison who could seek relief under the Supreme Court ruling.
Lawyers said it is not clear whether the Supreme Court decision applies retroactively.
Neither the Supreme Court ruling nor the North Carolina law addresses that issue. “It’s not been consistent across the country,” said Eric Zogry, an attorney with the state Office of the Juvenile Defender.
Lovette was midway through the appeals process when the ruling came down, so his sentence was not final.
Now a judge in Orange County will be asked to consider Lovette’s age at the time of the crime, other evidence about his emotional maturity, and his ability to benefit from rehabilitation.
The judge has the discretion to enter a lighter sentence, but nothing harsher. The three-judge appeals court panel left the sentences for kidnapping and robbery intact.
Lovette’s attorney, Karen Bethea-Shields, could not be reached for comment.
Lovette also faces a murder charge in Durham for the 2008 homicide of Abhijit Mahato, a Duke University graduate student found dead in his Durham home several months before Carson. A hearing on that case is set for Feb. 18.
Though the Orange County resentencing hearing had not been scheduled, lawyers agree that Lovette still might spend the rest of his life behind bars.
“He could get the exact same sentence he got at trial,” said Woodall, the Orange-Chatham district attorney. “The judge has that discretion. It just can’t be automatic.”