CHARLOTTE, N.C. – U.S. District Court Judge Max O. Cogburn didn't mince his words in describing the 2014 shooting deaths of a South Carolina couple who had been scheduled to testify in a criminal case.
"It's probably not the most brutal there ever was," Cogburn said, "but it was brutal. They were essentially executed."
His was describing the deaths of Debbie and Doug London, co-owners of a mattress store who were set to testify against the three men charged with trying to rob them. Federal prosecutors accused Jamell Cureton of orchestrating their shooting deaths and Malcolm Hartley of carrying them out.
In Cogburn's courtroom on Tuesday, Cureton and Hartley received life sentences after they pleaded guilty last September to avoid a death penalty trial.
Prosecutors say Cureton and two other members of the United Blood Nation gang robbed the mattress store the Londons ran in the town of Pineville, just outside of Charlotte. At the time, police said the men fired shots at Doug London, but missed. London returned fire and hit one of the three men, against whom federal charges were filed.
In the months that followed, Cureton talked to Hartley and other gang members to plan the Londons' murders, specifically the death of Doug London because he was going to testify against Cureton in court, the U.S. Attorney's Office says.
According to court documents, Cureton described Debbie London as "collateral damage."
On Oct 23, 2014, prosecutors say one gang member drove Hartley to the Londons' home in Lake Wylie, South Carolina. They answered a knock at the door and were shot dead.
Cureton was also accused along with two others in the death of a teenager who had been lured to a local park. Cureton admitted in court that Kwamme Donqurius Clyburn was killed because they thought he was falsely claiming that he was a member of the Bloods.
Last September, Cureton and Hartley pleaded guilty to 15 federal charges between them, including murder, racketeering and assault.
Cureton took Cogburn's offer for him to address the court. He apologized to the London family and referred to his mother.
"She didn't raise me like that," he said.
"I have to deal with the consequences . . . (The Londons) didn't deserve it."
When his hearing concluded, members of Cureton's family said, "We love you, Jamell," to which he replied, "Love you, too." The family wouldn't comment to reporters after they left the courtroom, and didn't address TV reporters as they exited the courthouse under gray skies.
The attorneys for Hartley used their time in court to extol their client as "an articulate young man." His hearing was less argumentative, but more emotional than Cureton's. Hartley's mother, Leslie Chambers made a plea on her son's behalf.
"He's not a monster,' said a tearful Chamber, clutching a handkerchief in her right hand. "My son, he's a wonderful guy. He loves everybody.
"I don't want my child to be in prison for the rest of my life . . . I just want him to have a chance."
By the time she finished, Chambers could barely contain her emotions, and as she returned to her seat sobbing, she said, "I don't even know what I said."
After the sentencing, Hartley only spoke to his attorneys before leaving the courtroom. His mother remained seated for a few minutes, crying as she greeted family members and friends with hugs. When the contingent left the courthouse, Chambers put a gray and white shawl over her head and refused to speak to reporters.
No one from the London family appeared at the hearings, but Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Greene spoke for them.
"The family is supportive of the resolution," Greene said. "They want to move on."