CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - After a historic and tragic year of homicides in Charlotte, a WBTV Investigation has found five cases from 2019 where charges were later dropped or thrown out against a defendant.
In three of those cases, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police arrested the wrong person and the case was dismissed after prosecutors reviewed additional evidence, raising questions about the evidence work leading up to filing murder charges.
Two cases tossed out by a grand jury, who returned a what is called a “no true bill” against two defendants after reviewing the evidence presented by investigators.
In the three cases in which a murder charge was dropped, prosecutors cited overwhelming evidence showing the defendant could not have committed the crime.
- Desmond Logan – Arrested for the murder of Ismael Doumbia. A man claiming to be an eyewitness told CMPD that he saw “Buck”, later identified as Logan, remove a mask after leaving the gas station where Doumbia was robbed and killed. However, another eyewitness noted the shooter was at least 6’1” and Logan is only 5’8”. Additionally, cell phone records from Logan did not place him at the crime scene when the shooting occurred.
- Tomka McDowell – Arrested for the murder of Santa Rodena Acevedo and attempted murder of Victor Acevedo. Santa Acevedo’s son told WBTV that Victor identified McDowell as the shooter originally but video evidence produced by McDowell’s defense team showed he wasn’t at the shooting when it occurred. CMPD arrested Lambert Smith in December for the murder of Acevedo.
- Antoine Watkins – Arrested for the murder of Na’Zea Scott. Cell phone records show that Watkins cell phone number was one of the last calls placed to Scott and that Watkins was nearby when Scott was shot and killed. However, statements from the sole eyewitness describing the shooter did not match up with Watkins.
CMPD Major Cam Selvey, who oversees the criminal investigations bureau for CMPD, said that making the wrong arrest isn’t something his detectives take lightly.
“The last thing any of my detectives want is for the wrong person to go to jail for a crime,” Selvey said.
The common thread in the three dismissals, Selvey claimed, is the difference between the standard of proof required for an arrest and a prosecution. In order to make an arrest police must prove there’s ‘probable cause’. However, in order to take a case to trial and get a conviction, prosecutors must prove that the defendant committed the crime ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’.
“Probable cause equals a fair probability that this person has committed a crime. My detectives make an arrest when they feel they have probable cause,” Selvey said.
It’s common for prosecutors and detectives to discuss the aspects of a case ahead of time to make sure both sides are on the same page.
In separate interviews, Selvey with CMPD and Mecklenburg County District Attorney Spencer Merriweather claimed they worked closely with one another. Assistant DA’s often show up to homicide scenes and representatives from both CMPD and the DA meet regularly to discuss homicide cases.
WBTV asked Merriweather why the case against Antoine Watkins was originally allowed to move forward when there was an eyewitness account that did not match Watkins description.
“I think it’s fair to say we were aware, but we have a separate and distinct role in the criminal justice system of looking at the evidence that’s brought to us,” Merriweather said.
“I think the police would tell you they would tell you they understood when they had probable cause to charge him that they knew it wouldn’t be beyond a reasonable doubt,” Bill Bunting, an assistant DA that leads the homicide prosecution team, said.
“How is probable cause met in a case like that?” a WBTV reporter asked Selvey, the CMPD major.
“You can have more than one person on a scene,” Selvey said, noting that he was talking generally and not specifically about the Watkins case.
“You can have instances where people are engaged in some sort of activity, they are present when a crime occurs and they can hold some culpability there,” he said.
Grand juries throw out homicide charge
Besides the three cases where the charges against the defendant were dismissed, in another two cases a grand jury denied CMPD a murder indictment. In what’s called “no true bill” CMPD presented the case to a grand jury but the jury decided there wasn’t enough evidence to charge the defendant with murder.
Selvey said that in his seven years in charge of the criminal investigations bureau he can only remember one other time that no true bill was returned in a homicide case.
“Yes that is unusual,” Selvey said.
“It’s not a slap in the face it’s actually a compliment to the judicial system as a whole, that there’s checks and balances.”
Bunting said that when no true bill is returned in a case it leads to another evaluation of the evidence.
“It make us take a second look at the case and ask ourselves do we really believe the evidence supports the original charge,” Bunting said.
In both no true bill cases prosecutors ultimately reached plea deals with the defendant.
Antonio Collins was charged with the murder of Shakier Malike Henderson. After the grand jury denied the original indictment he was indicted for murder on the second attempt.
Ultimately, though, Collins pleaded guilty to a single count of felon in possession of a firearm and was sentenced to 14-26 months in prison. He is scheduled to be released in June 2020.
“I felt betrayed because I know there’s more they could have done,” Henderson’s grandma Joy Goode told WBTV.
Goode says the she was originally led to believe that prosecutors might seek the death penalty against Collins. However, after evidence of different eye witnesses made the case more difficult to prosecute she was presented with the plea deal as the only option.
“What they told me, the detectives and everyone sitting there in the room is, well you’re going to be the first person we call when we get him the next time. I said well what about this time?” Goode said.
In seven different 2019 homicide cases defendants have taken plea deals for lesser charges resulting in prison sentences of several years instead of several decades.
“In all of these cases that you’ve identified,” Merriweather said, “we’ve identified legal issues in each one of these cases that lead us to a quicker resolution than we might find in some other cases.”
In the case of Henderson, a witness told police that Collins had handed Henderson his gun but that Henderson refused to give it back so Collins was left with no choice but to shoot him in the head. Still Collins avoided police and wasn’t arrested until weeks after the crime.
“Even if he says it’s self-defense, he still murdered a person,” Goode said.
ADA Bill Bunting told WBTV that even in the cases where they offer plea deals with defendants, it’s because they think that is the same outcome they would ultimately get from a jury. Merriweather said that despite the emotions attached to a case his job has to be focused on the evidence.
“To the person who’s actually lost somebody they don’t care about the different elements of these cases, our law does,” Merriweather said.
“We have an obligation to make sure we’re fulfilling that law and that the resolutions that happen in our courts abide by that law despite how unfulfilling it can actually be for those families.”
Taking a second look
Of the 106 homicide cases investigated by CMPD in 2019, there have been arrests in 76 cases. Only one has resulted in a murder plea. Ten other cases have been dismissed or been pleaded down to lesser charges.
“There’s always going to be things we can learn from every case whether it results from a dismissal or not,” Selvey said. “We’re constantly evolving in how we investigate, looking for best practices, making sure we’re being as efficient and fair as possible when we investigate these cases.”
Merriweather said that while the dismissed cases are definitely a wake up call, the justice system worked the way it’s supposed to.
“It is true these three people have been charged but what happened ultimately is the right thing that when we found out when the evidence pointed in the direction of them not being guilty and we should not proceed with that case,” Merriweather said.
“Couldn’t you look at it the other way that maybe the wrong thing happened for them to be arrested in the first place?” a WBTV reporter asked Merriweather.
“I think if we were taking the fact of the charge as being in and of itself a confirmation of guilt that would be true, that’s not what a charge is,” he said.
Earlier this year Merriweather announced that his office planned to take 20 homicide cases to trial in 2020, a significant increase over 2019. Merriweather side while they would never accept plea deals just for expediency there is a downside to having a case languish for years in the system.
“I worry about where those witnesses are, whether they still have the same level of engagement to come to testify when we need them,” Merriweather said.
“I don’t want cases getting old and it’s part of the reason why we’re dedicating so many resources to trying more of them this year and we’re probably going to do more the year after that but we’re not making those kind of sacrifices merely because of volume.”