March 4, 2014

Jury to consider rare death penalty case

Justin Hurd’s defense team couldn’t block his conviction this week for a 2008 triple murder in north Charlotte.

Justin Hurd’s defense team couldn’t block his conviction this week for a 2008 triple murder in north Charlotte.

Starting Wednesday, they’ll try to save his life.

A Mecklenburg County jury convicted Hurd on Monday of killing Kevin Young, Kinshasa Wagstaff and Jasmine Hines six years ago. Now, in a sentencing trial that has become increasingly uncommon, those same seven men and five women must decide if the 35-year-old Ohio man spends the rest of his life in prison or becomes the sixth convicted Charlotte-area murderer placed on death row.

Recent history points toward the former.

The county has not sentenced a killer to die since 2009. A Mecklenburg murderer hasn’t been executed in nine years.

North Carolina and many states around the country have seen a radical drop in death penalty trials, death penalty sentences and executions. Nationally, 79 death sentences were handed down in 2013 compared with a peak of 315 in 1994 and 1996.

Here, the state has operated for almost a decade under a de facto moratorium on capital punishment due to a series of lawsuits challenging state-sponsored executions.

No one has been put to death in North Carolina since 2006. The last Mecklenburg County inmate executed, Elias Syriani of Charlotte, died by lethal injection in 2005. He was accused of stabbing his wife with a screwdriver almost 30 times while their 10-year-old son watched.

Last year, only one death sentence was handed out statewide. In 2000, the state held 57 capital trials and sent 18 people to death row.

Hurd’s trial was one of two capital trials on tap in Charlotte-Mecklenburg for 2014. Prosecutors have at least eight more cases in the pipeline.

The county’s only death penalty case in 2013 ended in the conviction of Andre Hampton for the beating death of his infant son. But the jury opted to sentence the Charlotte man to life without parole. Of the two capital cases scheduled for 2012, one ended in a plea and the other was eventually tried as a non-death penalty case and led to a conviction.

Given the time and expense needed to plan and try such cases, District Attorney Andrew Murray says he reserves the death penalty for crimes that “shock the conscience of the community.”

The Feb. 4, 2008, slayings of Wagstaff, her live-in boyfriend Young, and her teenage niece, Hines, appear to meet that criteria.

According to testimony in Hurd’s trial, Young was a drug dealer who owed a significant amount of money to a New York cartel. On Super Bowl Sunday in 2008, Hurd drove up from Atlanta with up to three other men to collect the debt.

Early the next morning, Wagstaff’s house was in flames. Investigators found her and Young in the wreckage. Both had been bound and had their throats stabbed or slashed. Young had also been shot. Hines’ body turned up later that morning off Beatties Ford Road. She had been shot twice and doused with gasoline.

DNA placed Hurd at both killing scenes. Jailhouse informants also told the jury that Hurd bragged of being an enforcer for the drug ring, and that he may have had some role in the shooting death of his only known accomplice, Nathaniel “Lil’ Nate” Sanders.

Hurd’s defense team, which includes Alan Bowman of Newark, N.J.; Carl Grant of Columbia and James McMillan of New York, has significant experience handling capital cases.

So has lead prosecutor Clayton Jones, an assistant district attorney. When a Mecklenburg jury last sentenced a man to die – Michael Sherrill in 2009 – Jones was in charge of the case.

Superior Court Judge Robert Ervin gave both sides and the jury a day off Tuesday. The defense is expected to call at least one expert witness. It’s not known if Hurd or any of his relatives will testify.

One family member of the victims appears to have mixed feelings over what happens next.

Freddie Wagstaff cried on the stand last week when he started to talk about his murdered daughter and granddaughter.

Tuesday, when asked if Hurd deserves life or death, Wagstaff deferred to the 12 jurors (seven black and five white) whose opinions matter.

“There’s been enough killing for me,” Wagstaff said from his Virginia home. “But I’m not the one who has to make that decision. So either way they decide is fine with me.”

(NOTE: Story updated 7 a.m. March 5, 2014, to correct reference to Super Bowl 2008.)

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