February 22, 2014

Mecklenburg triple homicide case could hinge on DNA

The death penalty murder trial of Justin Hurd enters a pivotal phase this week with prosecutors expected to present DNA evidence that links theman to February 2008 slayings.

The death penalty murder trial of Justin Hurd enters a pivotal phase this week with prosecutors expected to present DNA evidence that links the Ohio man to the February 2008 slayings that wiped out a north Charlotte household.

Assistant District Attorney Clayton Jones said Friday that the state could finish its case against Hurd as early as Tuesday afternoon.

That would leave two days for Jones and colleague Reed Hunt to present vital evidence they’ve talked about but never shown: DNA test results that place Hurd where Kinshasa Wagstaff, her live-in boyfriend, Kevin “Fergie” Young, and her 18-year-old niece, Jasmine Hines, all died.

Hurd, 35, was arrested a year after the slayings, which started with a home invasion on Super Bowl Sunday.

On Feb. 4, 2008, Wagstaff and Young were found in the wreckage of her badly burned home on Patricia Ryan Lane in northwest Mecklenburg County. They had both been bound. Wagstaff, 33, a real estate saleswoman, had been slashed and stabbed in the throat. Young, 34, a DJ and reputed drug dealer, had been stabbed in the throat and face, and shot in the abdomen. Police say they found a bloody and broken knife in a car parked in the home’s garage.

After Wagstaff and Young died, someone poured gasoline in room after room and then torched the house.

Hines turned up about seven miles away, off Beatties Ford Road in Huntersville. She was gagged and shot twice, her body doused with gasoline.

Prosecutors say Hurd and Nate Sanders, both of Cincinnati, committed the killings during a plan to rob Young.

Last week, investigators testified that they found more than 5 pounds of marijuana, scales and a handgun in Young’s storage locker on Brookshire Boulevard. Wagstaff’s father also told the jury that he accompanied her daughter’s boyfriend on one drug-buying trip to Atlanta.

Hurd was living in Georgia during the time leading up to the killings, and it was there that he and Sanders came up with their plan to rob Young, according to testimony.

Sanders was killed later that year in Cincinnati.

If convicted of the triple homicide in Mecklenburg, Hurd faces a possible death sentence.

Each day of his trial, the 35-year-old defendant has walked into Superior Court Judge Robert Ervin’s courtroom dressed in a dark suit and with neatly cropped hair and beard. He appears to be an active participant in his own defense, regularly talking with his three attorneys or joining their huddles to discuss strategy.

But after a week of testimony, Hurd has remained in the background of his own trial. It has been Sanders, not Hurd, who appeared on two surveillance videos buying gas cans, trash bags, lighters and other items that police say turned up at both homicide scenes.

This week, however, prosecutors will attempt to pull back the veil using DNA, the microscopic genetic coding specific to an individual that can be found in saliva, perspiration, hair and blood.

Jones and Hunt say Hurd’s DNA was found on the steering wheel of Fergie Young’s Toyota Camry, which was parked near Hines’ body. They say it also showed up on plastic water bottles retrieved from trash bags stowed in Wagstaff’s SUV.

Late last week, prosecutors completed the so-called “chain of evidence” that they say will eventually lead to Hurd. They put forensic investigators on the stand who took DNA samples of the Camry’s steering wheel and also tested the bottles. All that’s left is for someone to reveal what the testing showed.

Up to now, the defense team led by Alan Bowman of Newark, N.J., has attempted to lower the public profile of the trial. They opposed Ervin’s order to allow cameras in the courtroom and requested the judge sequester the jury for the length of the case, which Ervin disallowed.

Last week, Bowman also attempted to keep the courtroom from seeing photos of the victims’ bodies, calling them inflammatory and potentially damaging to Hurd’s right to a fair trial. Ervin culled about five photos but allowed the jury and spectators to see dozens more.

Before the images appeared on the video screen above the witness box, Melanie Miller of Danville, Va., the sister of one of the victims and the mother of another, would leave the courtroom.

Bowman, a veteran defense attorney whose former cases include the real-life Camden, N.J., mayoral corruption case glamorized in “American Hustle,” routinely peppered the prosecution with objections for leading their witnesses through testimony.

He also battered the inconsistent statements of Antonio Harmon, an Ohio felon who told the jury Sanders and Hurd came up with their robbery scheme during meetings in Atlanta in late January 2008.

Bowman also told the judge on Friday that his side of the case will be “not long.”

Ervin sent the jury home at lunch that day. But by then crime scene investigators had taken the jury back into the wreckage at 6002 Patricia Ryan Lane.

Wagstaff’s body had been found in the front hallway, her purse, keys, scarf and a scorched cellphone nearby.

So was Lex, her white Maltese. He had been heard whimpering inside the home by a police officer responding to Wagstaff’s whispered 911 call that Sunday night, and as the flames spread, apparently had laid down beside her.

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