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Prosecutors drop gun charges over and over. Some suspects go on to kill.

In 2012, Mario McGill and several other armed men broke into a Charlotte home and shot a man in the leg, police said.

The next year, McGill was accused of firing a gun near a woman’s feet.

And the year after that, police said, he slammed the same woman to the ground and pointed a handgun at her.

Prosecutors dismissed all three cases, saying the evidence was weak.

McGill was used to that.

From late 2007 to 2014, Mecklenburg prosecutors dismissed nine consecutive weapons charges against him, records show.

He was free on Jan. 5, 2015. That was the day McGill shot and killed Robert Miller, a childhood friend.

Lisa Miller says she’s unsure why McGill killed her 26-year-old son at a west Charlotte apartment complex. But she believes Mecklenburg County’s justice system is sending a dangerous message to those who commit crimes with guns.

“It says if they get off one time, they can continue to get off,” Miller said. “They’re taking people from their families. And it doesn’t have to be that way.”

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Murder victim Robert Miller

Cases like McGill’s have contributed to an alarming statistic: From 2014 through 2018, Mecklenburg prosecutors dismissed 68 percent of weapons charges, a higher rate than any other urban county in North Carolina, a Charlotte Observer investigation found.

Statewide, prosecutors dismissed about half of all weapons charges during the five-year period.

BEHIND OUR REPORTING

How we reported the story

In 2017, Charlotte witnessed a dramatic spike in homicides, along with a rise in gun crimes. Observer reporters wanted to know what was driving the violence. In early 2018, we began examining data on weapons charges across North Carolina. As we looked at how the justice system handled those charges, one fact stood out: Prosecutors in Mecklenburg County were dismissing almost seven of every 10 weapons charges more than any other urban county in the state.

Why does this matter? It’s important, experts say, because people who repeatedly avoid punishment for gun charges often go on to commit worse crimes. When we examined the criminal records of more than 12,000 suspects, we found that Mecklenburg prosecutors dismissed charges involving weapons 68 percent of the time.

We began by examining data — compiled by the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts — on 58 charges that typically involve weapons. These charges include carrying a concealed gun, armed robbery and murder. Two-thirds of the charges were felonies.

In all, reporters reviewed 195,000 weapons charges that state courts resolved over the past five years.

We also found that police were charging some suspects with gun charges again and again. In fact, we found that more than 120 people in Mecklenburg County have been charged with at least a dozen weapons crimes over the past five years.

Then we examined the full criminal records of the nearly 300 people charged with murder in Mecklenburg County since 2015. We found that more than half of the murder suspects had prior weapons charges. Twenty-eight of the suspects would have been in prison and not free on the day of the murder they were charged with — if those charges had ended in convictions rather than dismissals.

We found patterns in the demographics of people charged with murder and those repeatedly charged with weapons crimes.

For example, of the 126 people who were charged with at least a dozen weapons crimes in recent years, 88 percent were black, 9 percent were Hispanic and 3 percent were white. And 97 percent of those 126 people were male.

To fully understand the records of many suspects, we also examined thousands of pages of court documents.

We interviewed more than 100 people, including police officers, prosecutors, experts, lawyers and victims. We also interviewed some of the criminals themselves.

The dismissal rates in other urban counties ranged from 28 percent in Forsyth County, whose biggest city is Winston-Salem, to 58 percent in Durham County. In Wake County, whose largest city is Raleigh, the dismissal rate for weapons crimes was 45 percent.

Mecklenburg’s high dismissal rate means that defendants there who commit crimes have a greater chance of avoiding punishment than in other N.C. counties. Suspects who get away with crimes often move on to worse offenses, including murder, experts say. It’s happening as Charlotte homicides this year are on pace to reach near-record levels.

To investigate how prosecutors handle weapons crimes, the Observer analyzed data on 58 charges that involved weapons, murder or manslaughter. These charges include carrying a concealed gun, armed robbery and assault with a deadly weapon.

Reporters also reviewed hundreds of documents and interviewed dozens of police officers, victims, violent crime experts and prosecutors.

The investigation found:

More than half of the roughly 300 people charged with murder in Mecklenburg County since 2015 had prior weapons charges.

For 28 murder suspects, a conviction on an earlier weapons charge — rather than a dismissal — would have put them behind bars at the time of the killing.

Prosecutors regularly dismiss serious charges — including armed robbery. From 2014 through 2018, Mecklenburg prosecutors dropped 57 percent of all robbery charges — a rate higher than any other urban county in North Carolina and almost twice as high as Wake County.

Former prosecutors said they had little choice but to plea bargain or dismiss most charges. That’s because prosecutors shoulder heavy caseloads and operate in a state-funded court system that is so overburdened that less than 1 percent of felony cases go to trial.

Authorities are grappling with this problem at a particularly deadly time.

Charlotte had 87 homicides in 2017 — the highest number in any year since 1995. That amounted to roughly 10 murders for every 100,000 residents — about three times New York City’s murder rate. And 2019 is on pace to be even deadlier.

“The message that is received by a criminal mind is, ‘I shot this person with a gun, but they let me go. So I’ll just go out and get me another gun,’ ” said Judy Williams, co-founder of Mothers of Murdered Offspring. “Who feels safe in a city where people can break rules, commit crimes and nothing is done about it?”

People who are repeatedly charged with gun crimes also frustrate police officers.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Det. Matthew Freeman, who investigates violent crimes in southwest Charlotte, said many people charged with weapons crimes don’t fear prosecution.

“We’re having criminals that aren’t being disciplined, and they’re turning into monsters,” Freeman said.

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Luis Palomino (right), owner of a car audio shop on Nations Ford Road, helps CMPD Det. Matthew Freeman find the video Freeman needed for an armed robbery investigation. Freeman says he frequently sees subjects he’s arrested more than once still out on the street. John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

D.A. defends dismissals

Mecklenburg District Attorney Spencer Merriweather said his prosecutors often have to dismiss charges because they lack evidence. Some witnesses aren’t credible. Others go missing. Still others refuse to testify.

Merriweather said that if he learned that any prosecutors in his office weren’t digging into the facts of each case, “they wouldn’t be here very long,” he said.

“In every single case ... we’re trying to determine whether we can prove it, and if we can prove someone committed an act of violence with a gun, then we will do everything we can within the confines of the Constitution to make sure that person goes to prison,” said Merriweather, who became Mecklenburg’s top prosecutor in November 2017.

When asked to explain why Mecklenburg’s dismissal rate exceeds those of other urban counties, Merriweather said Mecklenburg suffers from more big-city problems, including more poverty and violent crime. As a result, he said, the county has more people who distrust police and prosecutors — and fewer people who are willing to cooperate with authorities after they witness or become victims of crimes.

“You recognize that you’re in a different world,” Merriweather said.

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Mecklenburg County District Attorney Spencer Merriweather jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

In a small percentage of cases, North Carolina prosecutors dismiss charges so defendants can be charged in federal court, where they are more likely to receive stiff sentences. After Mecklenburg prosecutors dropped more than a half-dozen weapons charges against Rishon Cedeno in 2016, for example, U.S. authorities picked up the case. Cedeno pleaded guilty to possession of a firearm by a felon and is serving three years in federal prison.

Even if Mecklenburg prosecutors could build stronger cases, the courts here don’t have enough resources to cope effectively with all of the county’s violent crime, former prosecutors say.

Mecklenburg has 86 prosecutors — fewer than almost any county its size nationwide, the Observer found. A county with Mecklenburg’s population — 1.1 million people — ought to have at least 120 prosecutors, according to David Labahn, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.

Milwaukee County, for instance, has about 145,000 fewer residents than Mecklenburg — but it has 44 more prosecutors.

“Mecklenburg needs significant help,” said Andrew Murray, who served as Mecklenburg District Attorney from 2011 to 2017. Most of the data reporters reviewed came during Murray’s tenure.

North Carolina spent less per resident on its courts than any other state-funded system, according to data collected by the National Center for State Courts in 2012, the most recent available.

A shortage of prosecutors, judges and other court personnel limits how many cases the DA’s office can bring to trial, former prosecutors say.

Former prosecutors say some dismissed cases might have been winnable. But, they said, if prosecutors didn’t offer plea deals and dismiss cases, the court system would grind to a halt.

With more state funding, Merriweather said, the DA’s office could hire more investigators, start a program to help protect witnesses, and hire “community prosecutors” who could earn the trust of people in troubled neighborhoods — all things that would help prosecutors get convictions against violent criminals.

Gun crimes on the upsurge

In Charlotte, weapons crimes have left a trail of grief.

Weapons crimes are concentrated in Charlotte’s low-income neighborhoods, an Observer analysis found. But they also affect people across the city, from college students and convenience store clerks to guests at uptown hotels and Uber drivers in Ballantyne.

Since 2015, about three-quarters of Charlotte’s murder victims died by gunfire.

On April 28, just north of uptown, 40-year-old Daimeon Johnson was shot to death. Police charged Anthony Qashawn Walker, 27, with his murder. Walker is awaiting trial.

Walker, according to court records, had been charged with nine previous weapons crimes from 2012 through 2018. Prosecutors dismissed all those charges.

Several of the dropped charges stemmed from a 2017 robbery with three victims who identified Walker as a gunman. Prosecutors said in court records that they dismissed the charges because the victims’ identification of Walker “is not enough to proceed without further evidence of the defendant’s guilt.”

Walker’s fingerprints were not found at the crime scene, his attorney said in a court document.

Johnson’s younger brother, Nikolas Wright, questioned why prosecutors dismissed so many of Walker’s prior weapons charges.

“You know damn well if the man has multiple gun charges, he is going to do something that is not going to go away,” he told the Observer.

Labahn, of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said that when lower-level gun charges are dismissed, criminals become more likely to escalate to more serious gun crimes.

Alan Lizotte, a professor for the School of Criminal Justice at the University of Albany, said that criminal suspects in cities such as Charlotte learn that a gun charge “gets you nothing.”

“This is how homicides happen,” Lizotte said. “If you pull out a gun enough times, eventually someone is going to get shot.”

30 gun charges, 29 dismissals

From 2014 through 2018, 126 people in Mecklenburg were each charged with at least a dozen weapons crimes.

That dwarfs the number of people repeatedly charged with weapons crimes in other urban counties. Wake County, for instance, with roughly the same population as Mecklenburg, had 23 defendants who were charged with a dozen or more weapons crimes.

Since 2002, Charlotte police have charged Treon Livingston with more than 30 weapons crimes, involving six incidents. All but one of those charges — a 2007 assault with a deadly weapon case — were dismissed.

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Treon Livingston

Among the dismissed charges were armed robbery, assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill and attempted first-degree murder.

In 2016, Livingston was charged with shooting into Reba’s Bar and Grill, injuring five people. One employee at the west Charlotte bar said he was in the parking lot when two men carrying guns began firing.

The employee, who asked not to be named because he feared for his safety, said he took cover behind a Dumpster. He said both gunmen wore bandanas over their faces. But he said he could tell one of the shooters was a man he knew — a man he identified as Livingston. “I could tell from the build,” the employee said.

Denise Tatum was one of the people hurt that night. She said she was inside Reba’s when “all of a sudden, you heard gunshots and people started running, looking for somewhere to hide.”

A man in the parking lot was shooting.

“You heard someone screaming, ‘Guns, He’s got a gun. He’s shooting.’ ”

Tatum ran toward the back of the club and threw herself to the floor, where she huddled with other terrified patrons.

“I was just hoping he wouldn’t come in there and start shooting … I was praying, ‘Please God, let me get out of this situation. Get me home safely.’ ”

Tatum was taken to the hospital, with wounds to her arm, back and shoulder.

Livingston did not want to talk to the Observer, according to a woman who identified herself as his mother. But according to court records, Livingston said he wasn’t at the bar when the shooting occurred.

Prosecutors dismissed the attempted murder charges filed against Livingston. In a court document explaining why, a prosecutor wrote that only one witness could identify Livingston — and that witness refused to testify.

“This case would have been difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt even if the witness could be counted on for solid, unimpeachable testimony,” the prosecutor wrote.

Merriweather said it’s an ongoing challenge for his prosecutors to get cooperation from people who witness gun crimes.

“And it’s our job, my job, to make sure people feel safe and comfortable, and have enough confidence in the criminal justice system to assist us in keeping this community safe,” he said. “We’ve got to do a better job of establishing that level of confidence.”

CMPD Chief Kerr Putney refused to be interviewed about Mecklenburg’s high dismissal rate, but issued a statement: “While dismissals against violent, repeat offenders are always disappointing, they are beyond the control of the police department.”

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In 2016, Treon Livingston was charged with shooting into Reba’s Bar and Grill, injuring five people. One employee at the west Charlotte bar said he was in the parking lot when two men carrying guns began firing. Ames Alexander

A tougher approach

On a fall day in 2017, police say, motorist Lutishia Mauney chased another car on South Tryon Street and opened fire with a .22-caliber rifle. Her bullets struck the car, hit a truck and went through the window of a nearby apartment, said Freeman, the Charlotte police detective who investigated the case.

Police tracked down Mauney’s car and found the rifle inside. Freeman said she gave a tearful confession.

“It seemed like a really good case,” Freeman said.

Mauney, now 21, was charged with assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill — a serious felony that could have meant prison time if she’d been convicted.

She could not be reached for comment. But she told authorities that the men in the car she chased had flashed gang signs and had threatened to kill her.

Prosecutors dismissed the assault with a deadly weapon charge and allowed her to plead guilty to a different felony, discharging a weapon into occupied property. Her sentence: probation.

Asked why prosecutors gave Mauney a plea deal, Mecklenburg Deputy District Attorney Bruce Lillie said her statements about the threats from the men might have swayed a jury.

“That doesn’t justify it,” Lillie told the Observer. “That’s not self-defense ... But she is giving information that, as a prosecutor, you have to assess.”

A case like Mauney’s might have played out differently in Guilford County.

Informed of the facts in the Mauney case, Guilford County’s recently retired chief assistant district attorney, Howard Neumann, said he can’t imagine letting his prosecutors cut a deal like that.

“When you’ve got a person who will randomly fire into the public without regard for people’s lives … some period of incarceration would seem to be necessary,” Neumann said.

“I don’t think people get the message if they just get probation.”

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Howard Neumann, Guilford County’s recently retired chief assistant district attorney, says that instead of giving plea deals to those charged with gun crimes, Guilford’s prosecutors demand that most plead guilty as charged.

From 2014 through 2018, prosecutors in Guilford County dismissed 42 percent of all weapons charges, the Observer found. Compare that to Mecklenburg, where 68 percent were dismissed.

BEHIND OUR REPORTING

How did we analyze the data?

Reporters from the Charlotte Observer and the News & Observer acquired a database of all North Carolina criminal district and superior court cases handled from 2014 through 2018. The N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts supplied the data.

We identified about 110,000 defendants who had been charged with nearly 195,000 weapons crimes, such as armed robbery, assault with a deadly weapon and possession of a stolen firearm.

We wanted to find out how often county prosecutors dismiss weapons charges. We took several steps to do that:

If a defendant had a weapons charge dismissed but had a conviction on another weapons charge or a non-weapons charge on the same disposition date, we counted that case as a conviction. Why? Because prosecutors will sometimes drop one charge to get a conviction on another charge as part of a plea deal.

Reporters also eliminated duplicate records in the data, such as charges that were updated via a superseding indictment or transferred from district to superior court.

We also kept in mind that a small percentage of charges are dismissed by state prosecutors so the defendants can be charged in federal court, which has tougher sentencing laws.

State prison statistics also suggest that Guilford takes a tougher stance with criminals. Although Guilford has just half of Mecklenburg’s population, it sent more people to state prison during each of the past three years.

Instead of giving plea deals to those charged with gun crimes, Guilford’s prosecutors demand that most plead guilty as charged, Neumann said. The reason, he said, is that they view guns as the main threat to the safety of people in the streets of Greensboro.

Neumann points to another factor that gives Guilford’s prosecutors an edge in the courtroom: experience. Many of the county’s prosecutors are veterans. About seven of their 34 prosecutors have at least 20 years of experience. Compare that to the Mecklenburg DA’s office, where five of the 86 prosecutors have at least two decades of experience.

“We’re fortunate that we have numerous prosecutors with … experience who have built a reputation that they’re not going to just cave into (defense lawyers), ” Neumann said. “When they say they are going to trial, everybody knows they mean it.”

‘That was my baby’

At Lake Arbor Apartments in west Charlotte, gunfire has sometimes awakened residents. Last year, police responded to nearly 700 reported crimes in the area. About 40 involved guns, CMPD data show.

Prosecutors dismissed half of the armed robbery charges in the area from 2013 through 2017, the Observer found.

Natasha Tucker, the former president of the Lake Arbor Tenants Association, said a stray bullet barely missed her neighbor early this year. By March, things had gotten so bad Tucker and her family moved.

“I’d rather be homeless than live in a place that is riddled with crime,” she said.

On a Monday afternoon in January 2015, Robert Miller was at that apartment complex off Tuckaseegee Road when he got into a dispute with Mario McGill.

Miller was unarmed, but McGill shot him five times. One of the bullets struck Miller‘s chest and ripped through his lungs.

Lisa Miller says she thinks about her son every day. “That was my baby, my heart,” she said.

Last year — three years after Miller’s death — McGill pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to at least 23 years in prison.

McGill, 31, did not respond to letters from an Observer reporter requesting an interview.

In court records, prosecutors said they dismissed the three previous weapons cases against McGill because of “insufficient evidence” and because a victim failed to appear in court.

In one of the cases, a home invasion robbery, a victim said she recognized McGill as one of the suspects because she’d gone to school with him.

Her testimony was the only evidence tying McGill to the crime, according to Lilly, the deputy district attorney.

Lillie also said the victim didn’t identify McGill as a suspect until the day after she talked to police, calling into question the veracity of her claim. And she never went to school with him, Lillie said.

But Miller says she wishes prosecutors had pushed harder.

“If (McGill) had done time, maybe he wouldn’t be charged with killing my son. Robert would be here. And he would be with his family.”

EDITORIAL: The Republican hypocrisy on NC’s gun crime crisis

Ames Alexander, an investigative reporter for the Observer, has examined corruption in state prisons, the mistreatment of injured poultry workers and many other subjects. His stories have won dozens of state and national awards. He was a key member of two reporting teams that were named Pulitzer finalists.
Gavin Off has been the Charlotte Observer’s data reporter since 2011. Previously, he worked as a data reporter at the Tulsa World and at Scripps Howard News Service in Washington, D.C.
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