Rae Carruth Trial: 2000-01

views updated

Rae Carruth Trial: 2000-01

Defendant: Rae Lamar Theotis Wiggins, a.k.a. Rae Carruth
Crimes Charged: Murder, conspiracy to commit murder, shooting into an occupied vehicle, using a gun to attempt to kill an unborn child
Chief Defense Lawyers: David Rudolph, Christopher Fialko
Chief Prosecutor: Gentry Caudill
Judge: Charles Lamm
Place: Charlotte, North Carolina
Date of Trial: October 23, 2000-January 19, 2001
Verdict: Not guilty of first-degree murder; guilty on all other counts
Sentence: 18-24 years imprisonment

SIGNIFICANCE: The trial of a member of the Carolina Panthers football team for arranging the murder of his pregnant woman friend captured national attention at a time when other incidents raised public concerns about violent acts by professional athletes.

At about half an hour after midnight on the morning of Tuesday, October 16, 1999, Cherica Adams, 24 year years old and six months pregnant, was driving home through a middle-class suburban neighborhood in south Charlotte, North Carolina, when she was shot four times from a car which pulled alongside her. Seriously wounded, she drove her BMW off the road onto the lawn of a private home, and was able to make an emergency call on her car phone. In the phone call, she identified the driver of a car that had pulled in front of her and caused her to slow down immediately before the shooting as Rae Carruth, a member of the Carolina Panthers football team, who had just spent the evening at a movie theater with her. At Carolinas Medical Center, Cherica Adams's baby boy was delivered by emergency Caesarean section and survived; Adams remained in critical condition.

A Promising Football Career Shattered

Rae Carruth grew up in Sacramento, California, and played football for the University of Colorado. He was picked by the Carolina Panthers as a wide receiver in the 1997 National Football League draft, and signed a four-year contract for a total of almost three and three-quarter million dollars.

The police investigation immediately focussed on Carruth because of Cherica Adams's 911 call, statements she made to police at the scene, and notes she wrote a few hours after being admitted to the hospital. On Friday, November 19, police arrested Michael Eugene Kennedy, 24, of Charlotte, who was alleged to have rented and driven the car from which the shots were fired. Kennedy had a lengthy arrest record on assault and drug-related charges extending back to 1994. Carruth was arrested on November 25, charged with conspiracy to commit murder, and taken into custody. Also arrested on the same day on the same charge was William Edward (Van Brett) Watkins, 40, of New York. Frequently referred to as a career criminal, Watkins had a long record of violent offenses, and was believed to have fired the shots that hit Cherica Adams. Stanley Drew Abraham, 19, of Charlotte, believed to have been a passenger in the car with Watkins and Kennedy, was arrested on December 2.

Cherica Adams Dies and Rae Carruth Flees

Carruth was released on a $3 million bond on December 6. Eight days later Cherica Adams died of multiple organ system failure resulting from the gunshot wounds, and the charge of first-degree murder was added to others faced by Carruth and the other three codefendants. Instead of turning himself into police, as it had been arranged that he would do in this situation, Rae Carruth disappeared. His flight, however, was short-lived; the following day FBI agents, acting on information from his mother, discovered him hiding in the trunk of a car in the parking lot of a motel in Wildersville, Tennessee. He was returned to North Carolina and held in jail until his trial. At the end of December what had been generally supposed was confirmed: tests showed that Rae Carruth was the father of Cherica Adams's child.

Carruth retained David Rudolph, a founder of the Chapel Hill firm of Rudolph, Maher, Widenhouse, and Fialko. Rudolph had a strong reputation as a criminal defense lawyer and had successfully represented several clients in highprofile cases. He would be assisted by his partner, Christopher Fialko. The prosecution was headed by Mecklenburg County assistant district attorney Gentry Caudill; a veteran prosecutor, this would be his last case before becoming a judge. Van Brett Watkins accepted a plea bargain, confessing that he had shot Cherica Adams and pleading guilty to second-degree murder and the other charges. He agreed to testify against Carruth and the other defendants. In pretrial motions Rudolph was unsuccessful in attempting to exclude as evidence the tape of Cherica Adams's 911 call, the notes she had written in the hospital, and testimony regarding Carruth's flight to Tennessee.

In a separate proceeding in civil court in August 2000, Carruth was found to be indigent, his house having been sold at foreclosure and his other assets disposed of. This ruling, househowever, havingbeen was soldsealed at the request of Judge Charles Lamm, who had been assigned the criminal case. In a decision, which was controversial in the local legal community when it became known, Judge Lamm instructed Rudolph and Fialko to continue to represent Carruth as public defenders. None of this became public knowledge until the closing days of the ensuing trial.

Recording of 911 Call Is Played in Opening Statements

Jury selection began on October 23, 2000, and lasted almost a month, resulting in a panel of seven men and five women. As a part of its opening statement on November 20, the prosecution played the tape of Cherica Adams' emergency call. Their case centered on the fact, as subsequent witnesses were called to confirm, that she had identified Rae Carruth to the dispatcher, again to police at the scene in the hearing of a paramedic witness, and again at the hospital in the presence of a nurse. Carruth, the prosecution would show, had recruited Watkins and Kennedy to kill Adams because he did not want to pay support for her child, on top of the child support of $3,000 per month that he already was paying for a child he had fathered in California. The defense would argue that Carruth had not been involved in any plot to kill Cherica Adams, that the motive presented was implausible, given the fact that Carruth was earning $650,000 a year at the time of the shooting, and that the shooting was an indirect consequence of Carruth's refusal to finance a drug deal.

The first of several unexpected developments in the trial occurred the following day when the prosecution presented Michael Eugene Kennedy as its first witness. Although still facing his own capital murder trial, Kennedy testified without having entered into a formal or informal plea bargain arrangement with the prosecution. Kennedy told the court that he had rented and driven the car from which the shooting occurred, that Carruth had given him $100 to buy the gun, and that Carruth's reason was his unwillingness to pay child support. The prosecution then called another former girlfriend of Carruth who also testified that Carruth had confessed to her that he had been involved in the shooting.

After calling several of Carruth's friends to testify that he wanted the baby, and had no ill-will towards Cherica Adams, the defense took the unusual step of bringing Brett Watkins to the stand. Such was Watkins's reputation for impulsive violence that a deputy was positioned between the witness box and Judge Lamm, on the one side, and another between Watkins and the jury on the other. During a full day of confrontational examination, Rudolph attempted to get Watkins to admit that the killing had occurred because Carruth had refused to finance a drug deal. Watkins, however, insisted that he had been hired by Carruth, first with the idea of beating up Cherica so that she would lose the baby, but then to kill her.

The next day the defense introduced testimony from a prison officer, Sergeant Shirley Riddle, who testified that she had had a conversation with Watkins in jail at the time of Cherica Adams's death. In this conversation he had confessed to the shooting, but had also told her that he had pulled alongside Cherica Adams's car in order to try to get her to tell him where Carruth was going. When she made an obscene gesture at him, he said that he had "just lost it," and started shooting. According to Sergeant Riddle, Watkins had indicated that it was all about a drug purchase, and that if Carruth had given them the money they wanted, the shooting would not have occurred. Rae Carruth did not testify.

In its rebuttal the prosecution called another former girlfriend of Carruth from Colorado, Amber Turner, who admitted to having had an abortion after Carruth had threatened her life. Turner had been originally listed as a defense witness. Michelle Wright, the mother of Carruth's six-year-old son, also testified to having been threatened by Carruth.

The Jury Deliberates

After 11 weeks and 70 witnesses, closing arguments were heard on January 15, 2001. The prosecution played the 911 tape again, and emphasized the record of the long series of phone calls between Carruth and Van Brett Watkins during the weeks before the shooting. For the defense, David Rudolph laid out 10 points, all of which, he argued, presented reasonable doubt about the plausibility of the prosecution case.

The jury began deliberations the following day, but two days later, after 11 hours of discussion, the foreman reported to Judge Lamm that they were split on all four charges. After repeating jury instructions, he told them to keep trying, and on Friday, January 19, the jury returned its verdict, finding Rae Carruth not guilty of first-degree murder, but guilty on the other three charges. He was sentenced to not less than 18 years, 11 months, and not more than 24 years, four months in prison. Under North Carolina sentencing law, apart from credit for any time spent in jail awaiting trial, actual time served cannot be reduced to less than the minimum specified by the judge. Van Brett Watkins was subsequently sentenced to not less than 40 years and five months or more than 50 years and eight months. Michael Kennedy pled guilty to second-degree murder and received a minimum of 11 years and eight months. Abraham pled guilty to lesser charges as an accessory and received 90 days in jail and five years probation.

David I. Petts

Suggestions for Further Reading

Charlotte Observer Online. www.charlotte.com/observer/specials

Schmitz, Brian. "In Wake of Rae Carruth, has Ray Lewis Learned His Lesson?" Orlando Sentinel (January 19, 2001).