In the witness chair Wednesday, one mother narrated an adolescent slideshow of her son, describing him as a good boy who stuck “to the straight and narrow.”
Fifty feet away, another mother watched and listened, her only child killed by the convicted murderer the “good boy” had become.
Kimberly Mitchell, the mother of triple killer Justin Hurd, and Melenie Miller, the mother of one of Hurd’s victims, never came face to face in the Mecklenburg courtroom. But both played roles on the first day of the sentencing hearing in Hurd’s capital murder case.
Mitchell helped make the argument that Hurd’s life should be spared. Miller, whose sister was also murdered during Hurd’s 2008 siege of a north Charlotte household, never spoke. But throughout the trial, she has served as a daily reminder of two lives lost.
Hurd was convicted Monday of the first-degree murders of Jasmine Hines, 18; her aunt, Kinshasa Wagstaff; and Wagstaff’s boyfriend, Kevin Young.
Now, the same jury of seven men and five women must decide whether Hurd lives or dies. In North Carolina, capital murder cases carry only two sentences: life without parole in prison or execution by lethal injection.
Defense attorney Carl Grant urged jurors to “learn a little more about Justin Hurd and who Justin Hurd is.” Grant then mentioned Hurd’s lack of a previous criminal record, how he had grown up in an unstable household, and how, as a child, he lacked real role models and guidance.
On the other hand, lead prosecutor Clayton Jones advised the jury to balance what they now heard about Hurd with what they had learned during his trial.
Four witnesses testified Wednesday in Hurd’s behalf. One of his jailers described Hurd as respectful and well-mannered. Tanya Currie-Richards, a Central Piedmont Community College faculty member who formerly prepared Mecklenburg jail inmates for the GED, described Hurd as one of her brightest students and an able tutor.
“Do you think Mr. Hurd has the ability to help others?” Grant asked.
“Absolutely,” Currie-Richards replied.
“Does he have the capacity to get a college education?”
“No doubt,” she said.
After Mitchell narrated her son’s childhood photographs – with the 35-year-old Hurd staring into the faces of his past from the defense table – Mitchell’s brother, Timothy Pope, quietly testified on her shortcomings as a parent.
Hurd’s mother and father, he said, had a troubled marriage that ended when Hurd was 4 or 5. After that, Pope said, neither parent was around much, leaving it to Hurd’s grandparents to raise him.
The cross-examinations by Jones and co-prosecutor Reed Hunt were short and repetitive: Did the witness spend enough time around Hurd to really know him? Did Hurd have good role models in his grandparents and uncle?
What was left unsaid were many of the trial details still fresh in the jury’s mind – how prosecutors described Hurd as a drug cartel enforcer who led up to three other men to Wagstaff’s home in 2008 to collect a debt from the drug-dealing Young; how three people had been savagely killed.
A Mecklenburg jury has not put a convicted murderer on death row since 2009. A county inmate has not been executed since 2005. Last year, the county’s only capital murder case ended in a conviction but also with a jury decision to sentence the convicted killer to life, not death row.
Thursday, the defense is expected to call James Aiken, an expert in the death penalty and prisons, as its only expert witness. Then lawyers on both sides will make their last remarks to the jury, with a decision on Hurd’s fate to follow.