The judge urged Massaquoi Kotay’s widow and daughter to have faith. They spoke instead about justice.
Where was justice, Esther and Sianai Kotay asked, when they were standing in a courtroom trying to explain the cratering loss left by the slaying of their husband and father while his one-time accused killer was about to go free?
For 10 emotional minutes on Thursday, Superior Court Judge Bob Bell listened to the women’s pleas that Desmond Black receive a harsher punishment. Then he turned them down.
“I wish I could fix you. I wish I could take away your pain,” Bell said. “Sometimes people come into this courtroom thinking that’s what they’re going to get. We can’t do that. But we do our very best to meet some approximation of justice.”
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The Jan. 12 robbery and shooting of Massaquoi Kotay brought a violent end to what had been an American dream.
Massaquoi Kotay was a Liberian immigrant who opened and operated the Mina African Market on North Tryon Street near Sugar Creek Road. The store, which sold imported African food, had become a popular gathering place for the city’s Liberian community.
He was shot inside his shop and died as he ran to find help in the surrounding strip mall, Assistant District Attorney Tim Sielaff says.
Thursday, more than two dozen people showed up in Bell’s courtroom to bear witness to Kotay’s killing. They all wore matching white T-shirts bearing the victim’s likeness along with the stenciled call to celebrate his life. When recognized by Sielaff, they all stood.
“My husband was a lovely man,” Esther Kotay told Bell, her tribute interrupted at times by sobs. “He came to America to open a small business ... We were so excited.”
She said the Kotays operated the market with a casual profit motive. “If you have money now, fine. If you don’t have it, no problem,” the widow said.
That’s what made her husband’s death so hard to take, Esther Kotay told the judge: Killed over money he would have gladly given away.
Soon after the shooting, police arrested Black, 20, and Shalome Scott, 22, and charged both with first-degree murder.
Surveillance video taken at the scene shows two African-American males entering the store at the same time and later running out together. Black can be seen on the footage fleeing with an open can of beer in his hand, which he drops while he flees, Sielaff says.
Black told investigators he bought the beer in Kotay’s store, and that he coincidentally entered the market at the same time with a man he did not know. Once inside, Black insisted, the other man suddenly drew a gun.
According to Sherrill, Black was a frequent customer of the African market and knew Massaquoi Kotay. The attorney says that after the gunshot, his client panicked and ran. He didn’t peel back to help Kotay because the shooter was running in the same direction, Sherrill says. “He didn’t know what the other guy might do to him. He was in shock and he was frightened.”
Scott, the other defendant, has offered a different account.
According to Sielaff, Scott told police he met Black for the first time on the day of the robbery, and that it was Black who told him, “I know a place you can rob.”
That left prosecutors in a quandary on how to proceed. Sielaff says authorities “are confident” that Black did not kill the store owner. But he said the only witness who can say whether Black helped plan the robbery is Scott, who remains jailed on murder and robbery charges himself.
Sielaff says prosecutors were not willing to offer Scott concessions to testify against Black or, if they did, whether a jury would believe him. Sherrill says Scott’s account implicating his client is a lie, and only one of several versions of events Scott has given authorities.
On Thursday, before a nearly full courtroom, justice in the Kotay murder case was unveiled.
Black was allowed to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit robbery with a dangerous weapon. The previous murder and robbery charges against him were dropped. Under the plea agreement with prosecutors, Black will serve 30 months of probation, wear a ankle monitor for six months, and must earn a GED before the close of 2018. No additional jail time was handed down.
When asked by Bell if he was guilty of the robbery conspiracy, Black said he was. In later remarks to the judge, Sherrill insisted his client was innocent and had pleaded guilty only to avoid the dual risks of a murder trial and spending his life in prison.
The Kotays knew about the details of the plea bargain ahead of time. But they spoke passionately against them in court. Esther Kotay asked Bell to block the agreement.
“I’m pleading to you ... He’ll go out there and do the same thing again,” she said, turning her attention and disgust toward Black. “My husband got shot ... and then you open a can of beer.”
Sianay Kotay told Bell that she had graduated from UNC Greensboro a few days before her father’s death, and never expected to be standing before a judge, saying what she had to say.
“We are asking you for answers,” she said through her own tears. “Nobody knows the true story but these guys and my dad. We’re praying for justice to be served ... Justice must be served.”
Bell, a former ordained Methodist minister, responded sympathetically but directly.
“What you think of justice and what Mr. Sherrill thinks of justice are two very different things,” he said.
He told the Kotays that he had discussed the plea agreement ahead of time with both sides. “Given the facts as I understand them, this is the best resolution we can hope for,” Bell said. “I can understand that it’s not very satisfying. I’m sorry for your pain, and I wish I could do more to alleviate it.”
The judge went on.
“I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve seen a lot of people make the same kind of statements that you just made. The ones who go away and feel better about the situation have a faith ... They talk about faith. They are the ones who begin to be able to experience some kind of forgiveness,” Bell said.
He also said he has seen families hit by tragedy “spiral downward.”
“As long as you hold hate in your heart,” he said, “you are the ones who are going to be in prison.”
After thanking the Kotays for coming to his court, Bell sentenced Black according to the terms of the plea agreement.
As the Kotays and their friends quietly left the courtroom, the next murder case was already being called.
Jail records indicate that Desmond Black was freed from jail the next day.