Rayquan Borum pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder Thursday, setting the stage for a trial that will play out against the backdrop of a controversial police shooting last September and the riots that followed.
Borum, 22, is accused of the Sept. 21 killing of Justin Carr, which occurred during the outbreak of violence that erupted after the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott the day before.
Police say Borum has confessed to the shooting. Last month, Borum’s attorney, Terry Sherrill, described Carr’s death as a “terrible accident.”
In entering his plea, Borum rejected an offer from Assistant District Attorney Clayton Jones that Borum plead guilty to second-degree murder and a related charge, and serve what Sherrill said was a 16-year prison sentence.
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If convicted of first-degree murder, Borum faces mandatory life in prison without parole.
Jones could not be reached for comment Thursday. A spokeswoman for the Mecklenburg County District Attorney’s Office said prosecutors are ethically prohibited from discussing active cases.
Borum appears to be gambling that at least one of his 12 jurors will agree with Sherrill that the facts of the case point toward the lesser charge of manslaughter. Any verdict must be unanimous.
“I have seen nothing that convinces me this is anything but a terrible accident,” Sherrill said in July. “But what I think doesn’t matter. It’s what the state may be able to prove and our ability to defend against that evidence.”
In the end, Sherrill said Borum chafed at both the murder charge and the length of prison time that were part of the prosecution’s deal. “He was just not willing to accept the offer that was made,” Sherrill said.
Asked if Borum was gambling his life by opting for a trial, Sherrill replied, “Anytime you put anything in the hands of a jury, you really don’t have any idea of what they are going to do.”
In response to a question about two recent Mecklenburg murder trials that ended in a hung jury and two not guilty verdicts, Sherrill said it helps justice when jurors challenge police and prosecutors.
“I think it’s good to see juries that are open-minded enough not just to accept as gospel what a police officer testifies to or what some lab technician might say,” he said. “That’s the way they system is supposed to work. The jurors have taken their oath seriously and are really trying to do their jobs.”
The debate over what happened in uptown last fall still simmers in many parts of the city. At least a segment of the community angered by Scott’s death continues to say Carr was killed by a rubber bullet fired by police riot squad members outside the Omni hotel. Borum, this group argues, is an innocent scapegoat.
Police say no rubber bullets were used that night, and forensic experts contacted by the Observer say a rubber projectile would not have caused the damage that occurred to Carr’s skull and brain.
Prosecutors also say they have a compilation of surveillance videos and photographs that place Borum at the scene of shooting and show him firing a weapon outside the Omni. He was also charged with looting-related offense during the unrest.
Sherrill acknowledged after Borum’s arraignment that his client had a gun with him the night of Sept. 21 and fired at least one shot. But he said he has seen no video or sworn statement that prove Borum committed murder. Borum, he said, did not intentionally shoot anyone.
Robert Dawkins, the executive director of the SAFE Coalition NC, said outside the courthouse that a trial may help the city finally put the events of September behind it.
“But we can only do that by knowing what’s 100 percent fact,” he said.