Before his 20th birthday, authorities say, Justin Sullivan fatally shot an elderly neighbor, solicited a murder contract on his parents, and dreamed of killing up to 1,000 people.
This week he added another distinction: The 19-year-old from Morganton is now the first American ISIS convert in custody to face the death penalty.
District Attorney David Learner announced Monday that he will try Sullivan’s alleged murder of 74-year-old John Bailey Clark as a capital case. The FBI says Sullivan shot Clark in 2014 to get money for an assault rifle to use in a mass killing.
Sullivan was arrested last June and charged with federal terrorism-related crimes. A Burke County grand jury indicted him in Clark’s murder in February. His attorney Victoria Jayne of Hickory, did not return a phone call this week seeking comment.
Seventy-one U.S. supporters of ISIS have been arrested since 2014. Up to now, only Sullivan has been charged with a capital offense, says Seamus Hughes, a George Washington University professor and co-author of “Isis in America,” which details domestic ties to the Islamic State.
Learner’s office declined to discuss the case Thursday. So did the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Charlotte. While federal documents first linked Sullivan to Clark’s death, federal prosecutors left it to Learner to file the murder charge and seek the death penalty.
Why? Capital cases have a far easier path in the state courts. Learner must only decide if a case warrants the maximum punishment. Now, he must persuade a jury of Sullivan’s guilt and, secondly, that he deserves to die.
Federal prosecutors don’t have that leeway. They first must meet with a Justice Department death-penalty committee in Washington, D.C., which makes a recommendation on whether capital punishment is appropriate for the particular case. The final decision is left to the attorney general.
Two Charlotte-based prosecutors, Assistant U.S. Attorneys Beth Greene and Don Gast, went through the process in late February. They’re believed to be seeking the death penalty against suspected Charlotte gang members Jamell Cureton and Malcolm Hartley who are accused in the murders of Doug and Debbie London. The FBI says Cureton ordered the hit on the couple to keep Doug London from testifying against him in a robbery case. Hartley, court documents say, gunned down the Londons at their Lake Wylie home in October 2014.
The attorneys for the two defendants also were on hand in Washington last month. Charlotte lawyer Rob Heroy, who represents Hartley, says he met with up to 10 government lawyers for an hour to argue against the death penalty. He doesn’t know what the government will decide. “There is some peace in the fact that we gave it everything we had,” he said.
One sobering note for Hartley: Prosecutors in Charlotte have successfully navigated the death penalty in a gang-related case before.
In 2010, Jill Rose, now U.S. Attorney, put the first member of MS-13 on death row for opening fire in a Greensboro restaurant in 2007, killing two.
In the Londons’ case, Greene and Gast may have the added advantage of arguing that the gang members murdered to subvert justice.
Sullivan? A North Carolina jury hasn’t sent a murder defendant to death row for two years. The state hasn’t executed anyone for a decade.
But the teenager’s case may challenge both streaks. John Bailey Clark’s killing may not have gang ties. But Learner will argue to jurors that it has something even more disturbing.
It has ISIS.