DURHAM, N.C. – Whenever there's been a crack to fall through in North Carolina's legal system, Laurence Lovette and Demario Atwater have found it.
The high school dropouts were convicted of crimes but put back on the street by a system that failed to notice when they were arrested again.
Both are now behind bars, held without bail and charged with murdering two college students.
"We've got a lot of kids out there who have a sense of helplessness, with a propensity for violence," said Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez. "We need to look at the reasons our youth are doing this."
Lovette, 17, is accused in the slaying of a graduate student at the Duke University, and he and Atwater, 21, are charged in the death of the University of North Carolina student body president.
A third defendant, 19-year-old Stephen Oates, was arrested a few days after the Duke student's death and charged with murder and more than a dozen robberies. His next court appearance is set for Monday.
Abhijit Mahato, a doctoral student in computational mechanics at Duke, was found in his apartment a few blocks off campus in January. His autopsy said the 29-year-old from Tatangar, India, was shot at point-blank range in the forehead as a pillow was held tightly against his face. His wallet, cell phone and iPod were missing.
Eve Carson was also shot in the head, once in the right temple, her wallet and keys missing. Her body was found March 5 in the middle of a residential street in Chapel Hill about a mile from the North Carolina campus. The death of the student body president sparked a widespread outpouring of grief that led thousands to gather for two campus memorial services the day her body was identified.
The tragedies have brought together two renowned centers of academic excellence separated by just eight miles and defined most often by their fierce rivalry on the basketball court.
Atwater and Lovette were both students at Durham's Charles E. Jordan High, a school with a diverse student body and test scores that exceed the state and national average. The school produces success stories: Last week, a senior from Jordan won a $100,000 scholarship in the annual Intel Science Talent Search.
Atwater left in 2002; Lovette dropped out sometime last year. After pleading guilty to misdemeanor larceny and breaking and entering for crimes committed last November, Lovette received a two-year suspended sentence and was placed on probation Jan. 16.
Prosecutors believe he and Oates killed Mahato two days later. In the six weeks that followed, authorities in Durham arrested Lovette several times and charged him with nine different crimes, including burglary, car theft, breaking and entering, and resisting arrest. He was released after each arrest.
"I'm not going to second guess what a judge or a prosecutor in another district did," said Jim Woodall, the prosecutor in neighboring Orange County, where Carson was killed. "It's a tough job. You have to make hundreds of judgment calls every day. Nobody has a crystal ball."
The state Department of Correction said efforts to revoke Lovette's probation hadn't begun because he had been on probation for such a short time. Robert Lee Guy, director of the state Division of Community Corrections, said probation officers don't automatically receive information alerting them when one of their charges pleads guilty or is convicted of another crime.
But Guy said the state is investigating Atwater's case. Convicted in 2005 of breaking and entering, he violated his probation last June when he was convicted — and sentenced again to probation — on a gun charge. It wasn't until last month that he was served with a probation violation warrant.
Atwater's court appearance on the probation violation was March 3 — two days before Carson's death. The case was assigned to the wrong courtroom, Guy said, and rescheduled for later this month. Atwater was also supposed to be under a stricter form of probation that required him to meet weekly with his probation officer, Guy said.
"Most of the time those reviews take place and everything looks above board," Guy said. "The rarities (are) like this case. ... Most of them are not the tragedy of this nature, when you take someone's life."
Guy said he can't speculate whether Carson's slaying could have been avoided if the system had worked as intended, but he acknowledges: "I think that's the million-dollar question on everybody's mind."
Should either Lovette or Atwater be convicted of first-degree murder, they could fall through one final crack: neither is likely to face a death sentence.
For Lovette, it's a guarantee. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court banned the execution of people under 18. For Atwater, it might as well be; since North Carolina resumed executions in 1984 after a break of more than two decades, jurors in Orange County haven't sentenced anyone to death.
"There are a lot of people who are against the death penalty in Orange County, and there isn't anything wrong with that," said Superior Court Judge Carl Fox, who unsuccessfully sought execution in about three dozen cases during his 20 years as the county's district attorney. "A significant part of the population really aren't firm believers in the death penalty."