Testimony begins Monday in Charlotte’s highly anticipated murder trial in the fatal of shooting of a man during the 2016 riots against a backdrop of racial divides and police distrust.
Rayquan Borum, 24, is accused of the Sept. 21, 2016, fatal shooting of Justin Carr. That night, sometimes violent protests raged through uptown that followed the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott.
Carr, 26, died while standing among hundreds of demonstrators confronting a line of police outside the Omni Hotel. Many had come to uptown to protest not only Scott’s death the day before but what they felt were an exaggerated police presence that escalated tensions that night.
Looting and vandalism broke out in various parts of the center city. Dozens of bystanders and police were injured. More than 100 people were arrested.
Almost as soon as Carr fell to the ground near Trade and College streets, the rumor began spreading through the crowds and later on social media that he had been killed by police.
Two days later, Borum, who had earlier been arrested on looting charges, was charged with first-degree murder. He has pleaded not guilty.
In 2017, Borum turned down a plea deal from the Mecklenburg County District Attorney’s Office in which he would have accepted a second-degree conviction in exchange for a 16-year prison sentence.
Now, the stakes for Borum are considerably higher. In North Carolina, a first-degree murder conviction carries a mandatory life sentence without parole. During questioning on the day of his arrest, Borum told police he had fired his gun outside the Omni to disperse the crowd confronting police, and he had shot Carr by mistake.
Two-and-a-half years later, Borum will face a jury made up eight women and four men. Four of the women are African-American, the rest caucasian.
Typically, attorneys wait until their opening remarks to the jury before offering a public summary of their cases.
But in a surprising series of courtroom revelations, some with prospective jurors in the room, assistant district attorneys Glenn Cole and Desmond McCallum said for the first time that Borum indeed shot Carr by accident, but he was aiming at police.
They also debuted the name of a reputed eye witness, identified in court as federal inmate Kendell Bowden, whom prosecutors say will testify that he was with Borum on the night of the uptown shooting when Borum repeatedly boasted he intended to kill a cop.
Even as they offered previews of some of the most dramatic elements of their case, the prosecutors blocked Borum’s lawyers from doing the same. At McCallum’s request, Superior Court Judge Greg Hayes banned defense team Darlene Harris and Mark Simmons from assigning blame for Carr’s death to anyone else.
In the most emotional exchange between the attorneys over the first two weeks of the trial, Harris and Simmons said the prosecution’s declaration of unproven allegations during jury selection undermined Borum’s right to a fair trial.
Cole angrily responded that the defense had no proof of police involvement in Carr’s death, and that Borum “has thrown his life away on some hope that somebody on the jury won’t convict him.”
Any verdict in the case must be unanimous, meaning one juror can deadlock deliberations and potentially force the judge to call a mistrial.
Jury selection opened two weeks ago under heightened security inside and outside Courtroom 5370. Activist groups, including Charlotte Uprising, which believes Borum has been framed for Carr’s killing, promised to pack the gallery.
Attendance through jury selection has been sparse, in part because the courtroom doors are locked, opened only for 15-minute breaks mid-morning and afternoon, and for 90 minutes at lunch.
Hayes has attempted to keep the atmosphere light, but the seriousness of the accusations and the consequences of the jury’s ultimate decision seeped in.
Several potential jury members were sent home after they expressed opposition to the mandatory life sentence tied to a first-degree murder conviction.
One prospective white female juror was excused from hearing the case after she said she was unnerved that Borum had access to the information on her jury form. She said she already was leaning toward acquitting Borum out of fear of retaliation from him or his supporters.
Hayes kept another woman on the panel who expressed fears about her family’s safety should the jury’s names become public.
A significant portion of the attorneys’ questioning focused on opinions about police. A 2017 nationwide poll by the Pew Research Center found 74 percent of whites in America had a “warm opinion” of law enforcement officers compared to 30 percent of blacks.
Conversely, 38 percent of African-Americans expressed a “cold opinion” of police compared to 7 percent of Caucasians.
The defense team asked each juror if they would assign more credibility to police. The prosecution wondered if jurors had any negative law enforcement experiences that would keep them from giving police witnesses a fair hearing.
A white woman was excused after she said she could not give Borum “the trial he deserved” after hearing prosecutors allege Borum was aiming at police when he shot Carr.
A black woman was kept after saying she gave police no such special standing.
“Sometimes police get it wrong,” she said. “I view them as people because they are human beings and do make mistakes. They’re not always right.”
Several jurors expressed reservations about hearing a case in which one young man died and another could die in prison.
“This is heavy stuff,” McCallum acknowledged during his questioning of one juror. “None of this will be easy.”