UNC Murder Case Judge Calls on Lawmakers to Deal With Gang Violence

The judge presiding Friday at the first court appearance of a teenager charged with killing two North Carolina college students pleaded with state lawmakers to meet immedately and address gang violence.

"I'm sending an SOS to Raleigh," said District Court Judge Craig Brown. "I expect them to hear it."

Brown's call for a special Legislative session came as a surprise in the courtroom where Laurence Lovette made his initial appearance on murder charges in the slaying of Duke University graduate student Abhijit Mahato.

Police have not said that Lovette, 17, of Durham, was a member of a gang, or that the deaths of Mahato and University of North Carolina student body president Eve Carson were gang related.

In both cases, robbery appears to be the primary motive. Lovette is scheduled to make his first appearance in the Carson case in nearby Hillsborough later Friday. Authorities have also charged Demario Atwater, 21, of Durham, in Carson's death, and Stephen Lavance Oates, 19, of Durham, in Mahato's killing.

Durham police chief Jose Lopez did not immediately return a call Friday seeking comment, and assistant prosecutor Tracey Cline declined to answer questions about the judge's remarks after the short hearing.

Mayor Bill Bell said he's been given no indication the deaths are tied to gangs, but he said he supports the judge's call for more help from the state. He said a recent city study found that roughly 1,000 people in the city of about 190,000 people have a gang affiliation.

"We're trying to get a handle on it so that we can manage it," Bell said. "But it's not limited just to Durham. We're finding gangs in small cities, mid-sized cities and the large cities."

Bell said he worked with lawmakers to pass a bill late last year in the state House that would raise criminal penalties for gang-related activity. It is now in the Senate, and Bell said he feels the issue can wait until lawmakers return to work as scheduled in May.

Brown — a graduate of both North Carolina and Duke — promised Lovette that he will get a fair trial. But as he ordered the teen held on a $3 million bond, he said that Gov. Mike Easley, House Speaker Joe Hackney, Senate leader Marc Basnight and Attorney General Roy Cooper need to take immediate action to fight gangs. He asked Easley to call a special session.

Bill Holmes, a spokesman for Hackney, said a House committee already is meeting on other gang-related proposals the speaker hopes the full chamber will consider in May.

"The speaker realizes the need for attention to this issue and so do many House members," Holmes said.

Cline said she asked Brown for the high bond because Lovette is already facing trial on numerous other charges. Court records show that between Mahato's slaying in January and Carson's death in March, police arrested and changed him with felonies ranging from burglary to car theft to resisting arrest.

Lovette wasn't a suspect in Mahato's death until after police in Chapel Hill began investigating Carson's slaying. The 22-year-old from Athens, Ga., was found lying in street about a mile from North Carolina's campus shot several times, including once in the temple.

Cline said detectives linked Lovette to Mahato's death through phone records, a vehicle and items taken from his home. He was arrested in the Carson case after police released two surveillance photos that they said show him using Carson's ATM card while driving what appears to be her Toyota Highlander.

Police found Mahato's wallet, cell phone and iPod missing after discovering his body in January. The 29-year-old doctoral student in computational mechanics, originally of Tatangar, India, had been shot to death inside his apartment a few block south of Duke's campus.

Lovette was appointed a public defender. His next court date was set for March 27.