Jury finds Lovette not guilty of Duke student’s murder

When the not guilty verdict was announced, Mindy Solie burst into tears.

Solie, who owns the Durham apartment building where Abhijit Mahato was found shot to death, execution style, in January 2008, had been in the courtroom during most of the trial of the man accused of the Duke graduate student’s murder.

Among the reasons she was distraught, Solie said later, was because it seemed the community didn’t care about Mahato. “This isn’t right,” she said. “It’s not right that there is not a crowd here.”

For prosecutors who were unsuccessful in convincing the jury of Laurence Alvin Lovette’s guilt, there was some comfort that he, nonetheless, was going back to prison to serve a life sentence.

Lovette, 23, was convicted in 2011 of the kidnapping and murder of UNC-Chapel Hill’s student body president, Eve Carson, whose killing less than two months after Mahato was found dead was highly publicized and provoked a strong emotional reaction in the region.

“That’s always a difficult thing to deal with, having someone freed after a verdict,” said Assistant District Attorney Stormy Ellis. Lovette’s life sentence “brings a quiet comfort. He’s a murderer, and he’s where he needs to be.”

Most of the jurors could not be reached after they delivered their verdict Wednesday morning. Others declined to comment. They got the case Monday afternoon and deliberated a full day on Tuesday and 30 minutes on Wednesday before delivering the not guilty verdict.

Lovette’s attorney, Karen Bethea-Shields, said she plans to speak with the appellate attorneys for the Carson case about Lovette in light of the not guilty verdict in the Mahato case. She declined to discuss specifics.

The N.C. Court of Appeals has already denied one appeal of Lovette’s 2011 Orange County conviction.

The Mahato and Carson cases were intertwined, and one witness who claimed Lovette killed both victims called the Carson murder a copycat of the Mahato slaying.

Prosecutors in both cases tried to show that Lovette kidnapped the college students, drove them to ATMs and withdrew money from their accounts before shooting and killing them.

But Durham prosecutors did not have the same type of direct evidence for the Mahato trial that Orange County prosecutors had for the Carson trial. No direct evidence linked Lovette to Mahato.

The state just didn’t prove its case, Bethea-Shields said.

“Facts are what come from the state, because they have the burden of proof,” she said. “If they don’t meet that burden of proof and the jury does exactly what you ask them to do, then they will come out with the correct verdict, and this is the correct verdict.”

Another man charged

The trial revealed problems with the investigation of Mahato slaying from the beginning, Bethea-Shields said.

“I’m not a prosecutor. I’m a defense attorney,” she said. “It is up to the prosecution to have a thorough and prompt investigation, which they should have done in 2008, so therefore, I’m not going to tell them what they should have done. I think you could have heard it through the trial, the things they did and did not do.”

The Durham Police Department originally charged another man, Stephen Oates, with killing Mahato. It wasn’t until March, when Chapel Hill police were investigating Carson’s killing, that a Chapel Hill investigator received information from Shanita Love, who said she heard Lovette say he killed Mahato.

Because Lovette was not initially suspected of killing Mahato, he was not investigated for that, and some evidence from the Mahato case, including a camcorder stolen from Mahato’s apartment, ended up in the Chapel Hill Police Department’s evidence room. It was seized when Chapel Hill police served a search warrant looking for evidence in the Carson case.

That camcorder was not processed for fingerprints or DNA.

Few people attended the trial to stand for Mahato. His family lives in India and did not travel to the United States for the trial, and his friends from Duke have moved away.

Sam Miglarese, the director of the Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership, represented Duke University and was present during some of the testimony and closing arguments.

Assistant District Attorney Jim Dornfried said the woman who discovered Mahato’s body on Jan. 18, 2008, was so traumatized by what she saw that she had to seek therapy. According to Dornfried, she couldn’t face coming to court and reliving that terrible day.

Mahato was shot between the eyes. Medical examiners say he was shot at close range with a gun fired through a pillow held against his head.

‘We have to care’

For most of the trial, Solie was there representing her former tenant at the Anderson Apartments. “I feel like who cares that this young man died,” she said. “We have to care. Our town has to care. Our citizens have to care. Our neighbors have to care. Law enforcement has to care.”

North Carolina legislators need to financially support the justice system, including the forensic labs that test for fingerprints, DNA and other evidence, she said.

One DNA analyst testified that DNA taken from hair found in a stolen Mercedes that prosecutors think was used in Mahato’s killing had been contaminated with DNA from another lab worker.

Dornfried acknowledged problems with his case.

“We worked with what we were given,” he said. “The defense pointed out certain deficiencies. I would leave that to the police department to explain why those deficiencies were there.”