Moments before Malcolm Hartley was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison for the murders of Doug and Debbie London, his tearful mother told a judge that her son “is not a monster.”
Sitting toward the back of the courtroom, Lisa London, the dead man’s sister, found herself moved by Lesley Chambers’ words.
Later, after Hartley and another man both received life sentences, Lisa London quietly crossed the aisle dividing the courtroom and took the seat directly behind Hartley’s grieving mother.
“I’m Doug’s sister,” London told Chambers, who began crying again.
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The meeting of the two women – one losing her only brother and a sister-in-law; the other watching as her son was led away to prison for the rest of his life – served as a dramatic closing to an extraordinary crime.
Two-and-a-half years ago, the Londons were gunned down in their Lake Wylie, S.C., home – victims of a criminal conspiracy to keep them from testifying against three Charlotte gang members accused of trying to rob the couple’s mattress store months earlier.
Court documents say Jamell “Murda Mell” Cureton, a leader in the Charlotte cell of United Blood Nation, gave the order for the killings and helped direct the hits from his cell in the Mecklenburg County Jail.
Hartley, known among gang members as “Bloody Silent,” rang the bell at the Londons’ home the night of Oct. 23, 2014. He shot and killed Debbie London when she opened the door. Doug London fired one shot before his gun jammed, then Hartley shot him multiple times. During his escape, Hartley stopped and retraced his steps when he heard Doug London crying. He found the gravely wounded husband grieving over his wife’s body, and shot him again.
Twelve Charlotte members of the Valentine Bloods were charged in connection with the killings. Cureton and two others also faced murder charges in the 2013 execution-style slaying of Kwamne Clyburn, a homeless teenager.
Nine of the 12 have pleaded guilty. Cureton and Hartley, who pleaded last fall to a combined 15 charges to avoid a death-penalty trial, were the first to be sentenced.
On Tuesday, Cureton entered the courtroom first. Almost three years ago, Doug London and the gang leader exchanged gunfire during the attempted robbery of the mattress store. Cureton was wounded.
According to court documents, Cureton and other gang members swore vengeance on the Londons after they persisted in showing up at the preliminary court hearings.
“Hunt for blood, and blood gone hunt for you,” Cureton said at one point as the gang planned its retaliation.
Tuesday, the slender 24-year-old stood before U.S. District Judge Max Cogburn and expressed remorse for what he had done.
“I apologize to the families,” Cureton said. “I apologize to my mother – she didn’t raise me like this. I know I have to deal with the consequences. (The victims) didn’t deserve this.”
When the shackled Cureton was led away, his mother and other family members called out, “We love you, Jamell.” Cureton turned and looked over his shoulder. “Love you, too,” he said.
Unlike Cureton, Hartley declined Cogburn’s offer to speak. His lawyers spoke on his behalf. Then his mother walked to the front of the courtroom.
She told Cogburn that as a boy Hartley gave away his shoes and shirts to others who needed them more, and she blamed the gang for warping the course of her son’s life.
“He loves people,” Chambers said as her words became almost indistinguishable from her sobs. “I don’t understand any of this. … I want everybody to know that he’s not a monster.”
In the back of the courtroom, sitting on the prosecution’s side of the room with a friend, Lisa London said she was moved to tears.
Worried about her own safety – her loved ones, after all, had been killed for turning up in court – London only decided to attend the hearings of her brother’s murderers earlier that day.
She slipped into the courtroom hoping to remain anonymous. Then Chambers began to speak.
“Her words really hit me because I realized her burden – the guilt and condemnation she’s living under,” London said later in the day. “She wasn’t the one who did this. I felt compassion for her. We’re all suffering here.”
After the hearing ended and Hartley was led away, Lisa London slipped across the aisle to introduce herself to Lesley Chambers.
Later, as she left the federal courthouse, Chambers would cover herself with a large shawl to keep from being caught on camera by the assembled media. Lisa London, who came out earlier, turned in the opposite direction, and slipped away with her friend.
But now, as the big courtroom first began to empty, the two women faced each other and embraced. Both appeared to be crying.