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2 deaths and one flawed system

Times Staff Writer

On March 3, a 21-year-old convicted burglar named Demario James Atwater was supposed to be in court after he was caught carrying a gun while on probation. The hearing was rescheduled because of a courtroom mix-up.

Two days later, Eve Carson, 22, the student body president at the University of North Carolina, was killed near campus, shot in the head. On Wednesday, police arrested Atwater and charged him with killing Carson.

This picturesque college campus, already traumatized by the death of a popular, high-achieving student leader, has now absorbed several new blows: Not only did probation officers fail to monitor Atwater or schedule him for a probation revocation hearing, but a second young man charged in Carson’s slaying is accused in the killing six weeks earlier of a student at nearby Duke University. At the time of both slayings, 17-year-old Laurence Alvin Lovette Jr. was on probation for breaking into a house.

Lovette was charged Thursday with killing Abhijit Mahato, 29, a graduate engineering student at Duke. Mahato was shot in the head in his apartment during an apparent robbery Jan. 18.

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The revelations staggered the rival campuses, just 10 miles apart, which had been brought together in public mourning over Carson’s death. Duke students wore ribbons in memory of Carson and observed a moment of silence during a recent basketball game in Durham between the schools.

Atwater and Lovette, both high school dropouts from Durham, had histories of burglary and theft but managed to get probation rather than jail time. Police have not said how the two knew each other, though they attended the same high school.

State officials acknowledged that Atwater was not properly monitored.

“Our concern is: Why did our officers take eight months to get his case into court?” Keith Acree, a spokesman for the North Carolina Department of Corrections, said in an interview Friday. “This whole thing should have been handled last summer.”

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Robert Lee Guy, director of the state Division of Community Corrections, told the News and Observer of Raleigh: “There’s no hiding this. We have not done quality supervision of Mr. Atwater.”

Atwater’s criminal history, dating to 2004, includes convictions for assault, robbery, trespassing and possession of marijuana with intent to sell.

In February 2005, Atwater was convicted of breaking into a home in nearby Raleigh and received three years’ probation. He was supposed to check in regularly with a probation officer, but officials have not said how often that occurred.

In June 2006, a police officer investigating a burglary in Granville County, N.C., confiscated a handgun from Atwater. Last June, Atwater pleaded guilty to possessing a firearm while on probation. But again he was sentenced to probation.

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Probation officers should have immediately brought Atwater before a judge for a parole status hearing, Acree said. A judge could have revoked parole and jailed Atwater, he said.

“We should have reported . . . to the Wake County courts” in Raleigh in June, Acree said.

Probation officers finally began trying to catch up with Atwater in November, Acree said. On Feb. 20, an arrest warrant was served, and Atwater was jailed. But he posted a $10,000 bond and was freed pending the court hearing March 3.

Atwater and a probation officer showed up for court that day. But the hearing was postponed to March 31 because the case had been assigned to the wrong courtroom.

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Two days later, on March 5, Eve Carson left home in Chapel Hill early in the morning, police said, apparently to make photocopies for school. Before she reached campus, she was shot and died on the street.

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david.zucchino@latimes.com


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