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Legal experts: Will more face charges in Lake Wylie double-murder?

Now that prosecutors have claimed that Doug and Debbie London of Lake Wylie were killed in October to keep Doug London from testifying about the May robbery of their Charlotte mattress store, legal experts say investigators might allege a wide-ranging conspiracy between the crimes and charge others in connection with the killings.

And although one of the accused killers is fighting extradition from North Carolina, experts say, he almost certainly will be brought to York County next month and prosecutors will be under pressure to seek the death penalty for a “heinous crime” of murder for hire against a man who was both a witness and crime victim.

Malcolm Hartley, 21, of Charlotte, and Briana Johnson, 19, of Concord, N.C., face two counts of murder in the Oct. 23 killings. Hartley is in jail in Charlotte. Johnson is in the York County jail.

Brothers Jamell Cureton, 22, and Nana Adoma, 19, and David Lee Fudge, 21 – an alleged Bloods gang member – face interstate robbery and weapons charges in the May 25 robbery, during which police say London shot Cureton as the two exchanged gunfire. All three are in jail in Charlotte without bond.

But the cases are connected, prosecutors said in court Thursday, and legal experts say that could lead to murder or conspiracy charges being filed against the three robbery suspects and others in connection with the murders.

The link between the crimes seems to show that there was a “classic conspiracy” among the two murder defendants in the killings and the three robbery defendants, said Charleston School of Law professor Miller Shealy, a former federal prosecutor.

“If it is true that the two did it because they didn’t want the victim to testify, there has to be a conspiracy somewhere,” Shealy said. “If they had conspired with the three while they were in jail, then all five under South Carolina law would be part of the conspiracy.”

Cureton and Adoma were in jail at the time of the killings, but Shealy said that alibi wouldn’t matter if there were a conspiracy to kill the Londons. A defendant that is part of an alleged murder conspiracy does not have to pull the trigger or even be present, he said.

“It could be somebody put (Hartley and Johnson) up to it, or paid them, or both,” Shealy said. “They don’t have an airtight alibi if there is a conspiracy. Being in jail has nothing to do with it. The question is, what did the three in jail in Charlotte know, and when did they find it out?”

On Jan. 12, less than three weeks before Hartley and Johnson were charged with murder, the FBI raided Cureton’s jail cell and seized several items. The list of items is sealed in court records.

Federal documents can be sealed, Shealy said, because, if the crimes are linked, there might have been intermediaries between the jailed suspects in Charlotte and the suspects in the killings.

“It appears that in this case, there likely were others involved,” Shealy said.

The murder charges are in South Carolina state court. The robbery charges are in federal court in North Carolina. But prosecutors, if the evidence is strong enough, could seek wide-ranging conspiracy and murder indictments against the defendants in South Carolina, the federal system, or both, said Kenneth Gaines, a University of South Carolina law professor and expert in criminal trials.

Federal law allows for conspiracy cases to be brought under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, also called RICO, which is often used in organized crime and gang cases.

These types of cases often hinge on one or more defendants’ cooperating with law enforcement, Gaines said.

“It seems in this case that prosecutors have all kinds of leverage to get someone to help,” he said. “All of them are in jail. They may be in a gang, but it is tough sitting in jail. Tongues loosen up even when there are gangs involved.”

It remains unclear if any of the defendants in either case have given police statements confessing to any role in either crime. Johnson’s lawyer, 16th Circuit Chief Public Defender Harry Dest, declined to comment about whether she has given any statements.

Both law professors said there is almost no chance that Hartley will win his battle against extradition. That would mean that shortly after March 3, when Hartley is next scheduled to appear in court, he will be in the York County jail facing two counts of murder.

“He would have to have a good reason why he shouldn’t be brought to South Carolina,” Gaines said. “When he is looking at two murder charges, he probably doesn’t have a good reason.”

After that, the question becomes whether prosecutors will seek the death penalty against Hartley and Johnson, or whether they will try to build a broader murder and conspiracy case.

Federal prosecutors and 16th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett have two aggravating factors to cite – multiple victims and the alleged killing of a witness – if they decide to seek the death penalty, Shealy said, and they likely will be under pressure to do so for such a crime.

Daniel London, the son of Doug and Debbie London, said he is committed to seeing all those involved be prosecuted.

“Malcolm Hartley has wronged my family in the worst possible way,” London said. “I hope that he is prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Hopefully, Hartley can find solace by turning to God for salvation, but he deserves to answer for the horrible crimes that he has committed.

“I fully support the prosecution in this matter and will be monitoring their efforts to ensure that justice is done.”