On Monday, when Jasmine Hines would have turned 25, her mother wept in a Mecklenburg County courtroom as a jury convicted an Ohio man of killing her only child.
Justin Hurd, who prosecutors say led a murderous siege of a north Charlotte household in 2008, was found guilty of killing Hines, her aunt Kinshasa Wagstaff, and Wagstaff’s boyfriend, Kevin “Fergie” Young. Hurd and his five attorneys sat blank faced as the verdict was read in full.
The jury of seven men and five women heard two weeks of testimony in Hurd’s trial but spent less than four hours convicting him.
Now, starting Wednesday, those same 12 will decide whether Hurd spends his life in prison or is condemned to die. Mecklenburg County hasn’t sent a killer to death row since Michael Sherrill in 2009.
Hurd’s lead prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney Clayton Jones, also headed the case against Sherrill.
The speed of Monday’s verdict caught some observers of the seven-week trial by surprise. But it showed that jurors put more faith in the prosecution’s scientific evidence than in the efforts of Hurd’s defense team to discredit it.
Prosecutors tied Hurd to the Feb. 4, 2008, murders in north Charlotte through his DNA. Police said it was found on water bottles stowed in an SUV parked in Wagstaff’s garage. It was found again on the steering wheel of Young’s Toyota Camry, parked a few yards from Hines’ body off Beatties Ford Road.
Hines was 18 at the time. She had come to live with Wagstaff and Young while she worked and took some college classes.
Her mother, Melanie Miller of Danville, Va., who is Wagstaff’s sister, was a daily spectator throughout most of the trial.
Monday, after the verdict was announced, Miller declined to talk to a reporter, with one exception: The jury verdict she had hoped for had come on her dead daughter’s birthday, she said.
Attorneys from both sides shook hands after Superior Court Judge Robert Ervin closed the proceedings until Wednesday, then both sides declined to comment.
Super Bowl savagery
Jones and co-prosecutor Reed Hunt said Hurd led up to three other men to Wagstaff’s home on Patricia Ryan Lane, shortly after Young had put chicken on the grill for a Super Bowl Sunday cookout.
Young, a drug dealer, owed big money to a New York drug cartel, witnesses said. The next morning, firefighters found him and Wagstaff in the fiery wreckage of the home. Both had been bound. Young had been shot and slashed and stabbed in his face and throat. Wagstaff, a real estate agent, also had been slashed and stabbed around the throat. Whoever killed the pair then set the house on fire.
Investigators later found Young’s chicken still on the grill. It had never been turned.
Hines was found about four hours later. She had been gagged, shot twice and doused with gasoline. Prosecutors say the teen was running for her life when the fatal shot hit her in the back.
Hurd was arrested in Ohio a year later. By then one of his alleged accomplices, Nathaniel “Lil’ Nate” Sanders, had been gunned down in Cincinnati. He died three days after a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police detective showed Sanders’ photograph to Hurd’s girlfriend.
During the trial, two jailhouse informants told the jury that Hurd had bragged that the only witness to the Charlotte murders – Sanders, according to Jones – had been “taken care of.” (Hurd’s attorneys said that another man unconnected to their client has been indicted in the Sanders’ case.)
Hurd, according to the informants, said he was an enforcer for a New York drug ring who had driven to Charlotte from Atlanta to collect what Young owed. Prosecutors said the intruders spent up to nine hours at Wagstaff’s house searching for money or drugs to cover the debt.
During the group’s time in Charlotte, Sanders was captured on surveillance videos in two area convenience stores. But Hurd remained in the background of his own trial. Lead attorney Alan Bowman of Newark, N.J., took every opportunity to remind the jury that no eyewitnesses could link Hurd to the crimes.
Bowman also tore into the jail informants and prosecution witness Antonio Harmon, who said Hurd and Sanders planned the home invasion a few days before in Atlanta.
All along, Jones and Hunt argued that the case swung on the DNA. Hurd left the water bottles behind, Jones said, because when he and his gang doused the house with gasoline, the fuel exploded rather than burned, buckling the garage door and blocking in the SUV the killers wanted to steal.
A new choice of life or death
On Wednesday, the trial swings from guilt or innocence to life or death.
North Carolina, as with many states, is operating under a de facto death penalty moratorium. Statewide, prosecutors are less likely to take on the time and expense of a so-called “capital” trial. Juries are more likely to opt for life imprisonment without parole rather than a death sentence, which would be tied up for years in mandatory appeals.
The state put only one killer on death row last year. Mecklenburg’s only death penalty case in 2013 ended in a conviction, but the jury opted to send Andre Hampton to prison for the rest of his life for the beating death of his young son.
Now it’s Hurd’s turn. Last week, during his attorneys’ strong closing arguments, the burly Hurd had almost bounded from the courtroom at the close of the day, a broad smile on his face.
But Monday, after each part of his murder conviction had been read to the courtroom and Miller’s sobbing rose up from behind, Hurd sat alone at the defense table and slowly – almost imperceptibly – shook his head.