Judge rejects request to move Laurence Lovette trial out of Durham

ablythe@newsobserver.comDecember 18, 2013 

— Laurence Alvin Lovette, a 23-year-old man already serving a life sentence in prison for murdering UNC-Chapel Hill student body president, will be tried in Durham, his former hometown, in another high-profile homicide case.

Lovette is scheduled to be tried in July on accusations that he murdered Abhijit Mahato, a Duke University graduate student, found dead in his Durham apartment in January 2008.

In a Durham Superior Court room on Wednesday, Lovette’s attorney, Karen Bethea-Shields, entered not guilty pleas for her client on murder and robbery accusations.

Bethea-Shields had asked for the case to be heard in Wilmington or Elizabeth City, arguing that publicity on the Carson and Mahato cases would hamper Lovette’s ability to get a fair trial.

But Judge Jim Hardin announced his decision Wednesday in Durham County Superior Court denying that request. Hardin told the attorneys he planned to prepare a long order on the matter, but he did not offer reasons in open court for his ruling.

Attorneys said Wednesday they expect the trial to last nearly three weeks.

They said Lovette had rejected a plea offer from prosecutor Jim Dornfried.

Mahato, an engineering graduate student from Bengal, India, was found dead Jan. 18, 2008, shot between the eyes by a killer who fired a gun through a pillow, according to autopsy reports.

Durham police initially charged a different suspect in the homicide case, accusing Stephen Lavance Oates, an acquaintance of Lovette’s. Durham police stated at the time that the homicide was part of a citywide robbery spree.

Mahato was fatally wounded with a 9 mm handgun that investigators said was a ballistics match to the weapon used to shoot two robbery victims in their legs.

But investigators looking into the Carson homicide collected evidence that turned suspicions toward Lovette. He was charged with murder in the Mahato case on March 17, 2008, four days after he was arrested and charged with murdering Carson.

Prosecutors have contended that three small transactions were made with Mahato’s ATM card. Surveillance photos from those places led investigators to a white car, prosecutors said in a hearing several years ago. Those photos also linked Lovette to the Mahato case, although there has been little elaboration as to how.

Several calls from Mahato’s cellphone also were made after the homicide, prosecutors said at a 2008 hearing, to friends of Lovette. Lovette and Oates had shared living quarters from time to time, prosecutors contended, but they did not further elaborate.

The murder charge against Oates was dismissed this past February.

Dornfried, an assistant district attorney in Durham, stated in that order for dismissal that investigators no longer could locate a witness who was key to their case.

Without identifying the witness, Dornfried stated that investigators had made numerous attempts to find the person – searching databases, talking with people in the community and using other investigative tactics. That witness, according to the statement, was the one who initially led investigators to Oates, when he was 19 and living in Durham.

Without that witness identifying Oates as the assailant, the document for dismissal stated, prosecutors had “no other available and admissable evidence” about who “had possession of” and “fired” the weapon that had been linked forensically to the robbery and assault of Mahato.

It remains unclear whether that statement will have a larger impact on the Lovette trial. Oates could be called as a witness.

Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe1

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