A trial built around a mistaken-identity killing ended Wednesday on a dramatic note: Justin Dixon was found not guilty of first-degree murder.
The 24-year-old Charlotte man faced a mandatory life sentence without parole. Instead, the jury of six women and six men decided that the 1 1/2-week trial had not proved beyond reasonable doubt that Dixon had gunned down 61-year-old Michael Crawley on Nov. 15, 2012.
After deliberating for almost two days, the jurors found Dixon guilty of the lesser charges of assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious harm, and discharging a firearm into occupied property.
Superior Court Judge Gregory Hayes handed down a sentence in the highest range – back-to-back prison terms of 25-42 months. But Hayes also gave Dixon credit for time served. Dixon has been jailed since his arrest on the day after the shooting. That could carve almost 21/2 years off his punishment – meaning Dixon could be freed after as little as two years.
The jury’s parsing of guilt caught many in the courtroom off guard.
“We respect the jury’s verdict,” lead prosecutor Anna Greene told Hayes after the decision had been read aloud. “However, I would be dishonest to this court if I didn’t say that I am surprised.”
Greene said the decision was not consistent with North Carolina law. Sitting behind her, Crawley’s widow and friends looked stunned. Mary Crawley rested her face on her palm as she slowly shook her head.
Dion Ruff, who was wounded and watched Crawley die beside him two years ago, said afterward he did not understand how Dixon could be convicted of assault and opening fire on them – but not of murder “when a bullet killed Michael.”
“I hope he learns from what he’s done because he’s caused a lot of pain for two families,” Ruff said outside the courtroom.
Keeping with the demeanor he displayed throughout the trial, Dixon showed no emotion as the verdict was read. The assault and firearms convictions came first, followed by the not guilty on the murder charge. Even then, the defendant and about 10 members of his family barely reacted. Defense attorney Desmond McCallum later said most of the relatives initially didn’t understand what the sentences meant. They left the courtroom without comment. McCallum said the verdict will be appealed.
From the beginning, the trial hung on dual claims of mistaken identity. Prosecutors said Dixon opened fire on Crawley and Ruff, two middle-aged Jehovah’s Witnesses, thinking that the pair been called into the Greenville community of northwest Charlotte to do him and two friends harm. Instead, the victims had spent the evening at church and had dinner together. Ruff had even cut his friend’s hair, and Crawley was giving him a ride home when they were cut off by three men in a van, and the shooting started.
McCallum, however, said police charged the wrong man, and that Dixon’s friend, Cedrick Mobley, fired the shots that night on Fontana Drive. Mobley has pleaded guilty to two counts of firing into a moving, occupied vehicle and awaits sentencing. A third suspect, Phillip Henderson, faces his own murder trial.
In testimony last week, Ruff identified Dixon as the enraged gunman who pelted Crawley’s car with bullets. When Ruff asked Dixon why, he said Dixon cursed him using a racial epithet, then shot him in the stomach. The bullet is still there.
Greene and co-counsel Erik Lindahl also showed the jury fingerprints, which they say proved Dixon had fired the gun while standing in the front passenger seat.
McCallum, however, picked at inconsistencies in Ruff’s testimony and his earlier statements to police. In particular, McCallum pressed Ruff to explain how he identified Dixon from a police photo lineup only minutes after telling Greene and a detective that he never got a good look at his assailant. When Ruff picked out Mobley’s photograph, he initially told a detective that Mobley could have been the driver of the van or the shooter who fired across the vehicle’s hood.
McCallum argued that defense evidence indicated Mobley had fired the shots from the driver’s seat.
Afterward, McCallum said the verdict left him – and his client – with mixed emotions. “I feel awful for Mr. Crawley’s family and Mr. Ruff’s family,” he said. “But Justin is not the correct person to be held accountable.”
As Dixon’s family exited through one door of the courthouse, Ruff walked slowly out of another. He said he learned earlier in the day that the bullet in his body has moved from his back to his stomach, likely forcing a third round of surgery. He said he wakes up at night still seeing Crawley’s face at the moment of his death.
Asked if he had any words for his friend, Ruff did not pause.
“I would tell Mike to rest,” he said. “It’s over with.”