An attorney for the 16-year-old suspect in the on-campus shooting death of a fellow Butler High School student said Tuesday that Jatwan Cuffie had been the target of threats and bullying.
“It’s already out there that there were threats to him and that there was an issue of bullying,” Assistant Mecklenburg County Public Defender Joel Adelman said, minutes after Cuffie had made his initial appearance in court.
Cuffie, a Butler High freshman, is charged with first-degree murder in the Monday shooting death of Bobby McKeithen, which occurred in a crowded hallway at the 2,100-student school, shortly before classes began.
If convicted of the charge, Cuffie faces life in prison without parole.
Matthews police said Tuesday that the gun used in the killing was stolen in August in Gaston County. The department also said it was investigating whether an earlier off-campus fight was tied to the shooting.
Police said autopsy results revealed McKeithen had been shot once in the torso, WBTV reported.
Multiple students told the Observer that the shooting occurred during a brief hallway fight between Cuffie and McKeithen. After being wounded, McKeithen was treated at the scene but died at a nearby hospital. Cuffie surrendered without incident to school resource officers shortly after the shooting, authorities said.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Clayton Wilcox said Monday that the incident “began with bullying that escalated out of control, and as fear took over a young person brought a gun to solve the problem.” Wilcox would not elaborate.
Jourdan Perry, a Butler sophomore who said she was a close friend of McKeithen, described the victim as “caring and loving.” If someone bullied Cuffie, she said, it wasn’t McKeithen.
“I felt like he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and this wasn’t supposed to happen to him,” she said.
With his family watching Tuesday, the 5-foot-8, 120-pound Cuffie was the first inmate led into the first-floor Mecklenburg courtroom just before 2 p.m. to appear before District Judge David Strickland. He wore a green inmate jumpsuit and did not speak during his four-minute hearing.
Adelman told the judge that the teen “is not a danger to the community” and should be assessed a $10,000 bond. The attorney said Cuffie had no previous criminal record and that the shooting was an isolated event.
Adelman asked Strickland to equip Cuffie with an electronic monitoring device and then turn him over to the custody of his mother, who watched with other family members from the left side of the courtroom.
Strickland refused. Cuffie will be held in the Mecklenburg jail without bond pending a Nov. 7 hearing.
Cuffie did not respond when the judge asked if he had any questions. Instead, Adelman huddled with the youth, speaking in Cuffie’s ear as he patted Cuffie’s left shoulder. The lawyer later declined to say what the two shared.
Escorted by deputies, Cuffie’s family left the courtroom without comment. Asked about how they are dealing with Cuffie’s arrest, Adelman said, “He’s their son. He’s their baby. He’s 16 years old, and it’s difficult for them as it would be for any parent.”
As Cuffie’s case began its slow crawl through the criminal justice system, Butler High in Matthews struggled to make sense of the tragedy, which was viewed by dozens of students on their way to their first class.
Anna O’Connell, an 11th-grader, said Cuffie and McKeithen were one-time friends.
“They didn’t really have, like, personal problems with each other,” she said. “I just think they just kind of fell off as friends.”Butler sophomore Aaliya Griffin said she became friends with Cuffie last year and shared a second-block class with him this semester. She says Cuffie did his school work and did not have behavior problems in class. She said similar things about McKeithen.“That’s why I’m confused on why this happened, because neither one of them were ever in anything. You would never hear their names in anything.”Adelman, the felony supervisor for the Mecklenburg Public Defender’s Office, said after the hearing that Cuffie deserved a bond. Asked to describe his client, Adelman used three adjectives.
Shy. Quiet. Scared.
Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095; @MikeGordonOBS