Chapter 6: The verdict and the miracle
When the jury in the Rae Carruth murder trial began its deliberations on Jan. 16, 2001, noise consumed the room. It was like sitting around the table at Thanksgiving dinner — everyone wanted to talk at once.
Judge Charles Lamm had first instructed the jury to pick a foreman. To courtroom observers, Herb Brown seemed like a shoo-in: He was a lawyer with 37 years of experience.
But Brown wanted no part of the job.
He told the others that if he was the foreman, whatever verdict they reached would be torn to bits, and that outsiders would wonder if the decision had been made by a lawyer and his 11 puppets. He didn’t want that to happen.
They needed another volunteer.
Clark Pennell, 52 at the time and working at a Charlotte charity called Crisis Assistance Ministry, raised his hand. So did Jerry Karst, and at least one other juror.
Pennell — who had served as a juror on a murder case before, although not as a foreman —was elected in a secret ballot.
The jury needed to come to unanimous agreement on each of the four charges facing the former Carolina Panther in connection with the death of Cherica Adams, who was nearly eight months pregnant with Carruth’s child when she was shot on Nov. 16, 1999.
The four charges were decided upon by the judge shortly before the jury received the case of State of North Carolina v. Rae Lamar Wiggins aka Rae Theotis Carruth.
They were, in order of most to least severe: First-degree murder; conspiracy to commit murder; using an instrument with intent to destroy an unborn child; and discharging a firearm into occupied property.
The jury received a verdict sheet for each charge. Once they decided on all four charges, Pennell would fill out the sheets, writing “guilty” or “not guilty” on each piece of paper.
Triggerman Van Brett Watkins had pleaded guilty to second-degree murder as part of his plea bargain, guaranteeing he couldn’t be sentenced to death. But the Carruth jury wouldn’t have second-degree murder, which doesn’t require premeditation, as an option.
The district attorney’s office had offered Watkins the lesser charge in order to secure his cooperation — and also offered it to Carruth and the other co-defendants. Only Watkins agreed.
But once the trial began and the evidence was presented in the Carruth case, mostly about his alleged premeditation, deliberation and specific intent to kill Cherica Adams, the second-degree charge didn’t fit, according to interviews with both the defense and prosecution.
Gentry Caudill, the lead prosecutor, said that the first-degree murder charge was the right call by the judge.
“An ambush of this young woman, firing five times into her at point-blank range — there’s no reason, no justification, for submitting anything but first-degree murder by way of premeditation,” he said.
As the 12 jurors — seven men and five women — began deliberations, it quickly became apparent Carruth wouldn’t walk out of the courtroom a free man like former NFL star O.J. Simpson did after he was tried in the brutal murder of his wife and her friend in 1995.
Juror Karst said he was convinced of Carruth’s guilt when Watkins testified about the night he shot Adams.
“His story was powerful, nasty and evil as you can get,” Karst said.
And when the jury finally got to debate the case, Karst was ready. He asked the others if everyone agreed that Carruth was in it “up to his eyeballs.”
Everybody agreed that Carruth was.
‘The best we could do’
But up to his eyeballs in what, exactly?
Karst believed the prosecution’s argument completely and advocated for first-degree murder, as well as the three lesser charges.
He didn’t believe lead defense attorney David Rudolf’s drug-deal-gone-bad defense at all.
“My impression of David was that he came up with an alternate set of possibilities that were never backed up by anything in the testimony that I ever heard,” Karst said. “He said it could possibly have been a drug deal gone bad. And that’s why all this happened.
“None of the testimony even hinted at that.”
But Brown, the lawyer, didn’t think Carruth was guilty of first-degree murder — in large part because of the plea deal Watkins got. If the triggerman was guilty of second-degree murder, Brown thought, why convict someone who didn’t actually shoot Cherica Adams of first-degree murder? He relayed that opinion to his fellow jurors.
Pennell and other jurors kept thinking about Cherica Adams’ emergency 911 call, when she placed Carruth at the scene of the crime after being shot four times.
“We just couldn’t wrap our hands around why would she say some of the things she said at this moment if they weren’t true,” Pennell said in a recent interview.
With a foreman chosen and deliberations about to begin, the jury sent the judge a note requesting supplies, including a dry-erase board and markers.
The simplest solution was to give jurors the dry-erase board that all the lawyers had used during the trial. But Rudolf had used the wrong kind of marker on it during his closing arguments.
The words “Reasonable Doubts” had been inked on permanently.
A new board was found and the jury started its work.
At one point, Pennell sent Lamm a note saying the jury was at an impasse. Lamm gave them more instructions, told them to consider each others’ opinions more thoroughly, and sent them back for more deliberations.
On Friday, Jan. 19, 2001 — after 20 hours and multiple votes — the jury agreed unanimously on all four counts.
Pennell, as the foreman, signed each of the four verdict sheets. The jurors walked back into the courtroom.
They already knew the verdict would be criticized, and Karst recalled it in an interview as an “unfortunate” and “inconsistent” verdict.
“But,” he said, “that was the best we could do at that point.”
‘We, the jury …’
When it was time for the verdict to be read, Judge Lamm took a big breath and gazed out over Courtroom 3301.
“If everybody’s here,” he said, “if everybody’s prepared ...”
With Pennell set to read the verdict in a silent courtroom, Carruth rose to hear his fate. One day shy of his 27th birthday, Carruth stood beside Rudolf and showed no expression.
“We, the jury,” Pennell began, “return a unanimous verdict as follows …”
“That the defendant, Rae Lamar Carruth … is guilty of discharging a firearm into occupied property … guilty of using an instrument with intent to destroy an unborn child … guilty of conspiracy to commit murder of Cherica Adams …”
Pennell paused briefly.
“But not guilty of the first-degree murder of Cherica Adams.”
It was a compromise verdict.
Carruth, who had no outward reaction at all while the verdict was read, wouldn’t get the death penalty. But he also wouldn’t be getting out of prison for years. No one got exactly what they wanted.
“I was disappointed at the time,” Rudolf, Carruth’s defense attorney, said.
Caudill, the prosecutor, agreed.
“Was I disappointed?”” he asked. “Yes.”
Theodry Carruth, Rae Carruth’s mother, would later tell the TV show “20/20” that her son was punished for “the sins of O.J. (Simpson),” because “people down here feel that professional athletes have just gotten away with too much.”
Saundra Adams, Cherica’s mother, said she believed at the time that Caudill and his colleagues did an excellent job prosecuting the case.
But she added that that she believed the prosecution was “overconfident” that a jury that convicted Carruth of conspiracy to commit murder would also convict him for first-degree murder.
The outcome, Adams said, was not what she wanted, but ultimately isn’t what she focuses on, either.
The difference between the 19 years of Carruth’s prison sentence and the the 40-plus years Van Brett Watkins ultimately received wouldn’t change the most important thing.
“Cherica’s still dead,” she said. “And it’s not bringing her back.”
Did jury ‘follow the law’?
Pennell, the jury foreman, said in an interview that he is “99 percent sure” the jury would also have convicted Carruth of second-degree murder if given the choice.
That verdict might have put Carruth in prison for another 10 years or so, depending on the sentence Lamm imposed.
“I think the state made a huge error by not giving us the option of second-degree murder,” Pennell said. “If they had given us the option of second-degree murder, we in all likelihood would have agreed to second-degree murder. …
“We all knew that he (Carruth) was part of it. But with him not pulling the trigger, in good conscience we couldn’t say first-degree.”
But it was Lamm — not the prosecutors representing the state — who wrote the verdict sheet language and decided that the first-degree murder option was what fit the evidence. Rudolf believed the option of first-degree murder or “not guilty” was correct as well.
Caudill emphasized that he wasn’t criticizing the jury’s verdict. But he also said that if Pennell’s and Brown’s statements about the jurors’ decision-making process were accurate, then the jury violated its oath.
Said Caudill: “If what they’re saying is that because Watkins took the (second-degree murder) plea and Carruth refused to take it, then they made their decision based on some subjective weighing process, that was totally contrary to their oath to follow the law as given to them by the judge — and (to) make their decision based on the law and the evidence.”
Brown, the lawyer on the jury who advocated for the split verdict, had a different view.
“I just didn’t think a co-conspirator who was not the triggerman should be convicted of first-degree murder when the state allowed the real murderer to plead to second-degree,” he said. “I feel like what Rae Carruth was convicted of was an appropriate conviction.”
Immediately after the verdict, Saundra Adams asked Caudill, the other prosecutors and members of her family if they would join her in a nearby room inside the courthouse before everyone scattered.
They formed a circle. Saundra asked them to bow their heads.
“And she prayed,” Caudill said. “Prayed for us. Prayed for Rae Carruth. Prayed for Van Brett Watkins. It was an incredibly moving moment I’ll never forget.”
No ‘smack on the wrist’
The jury was dismissed, but the trial wasn’t over.
Lamm still had to decide Carruth’s sentence, and that would take one more day in court. After the weekend, the trial reconvened on a Monday.
Rudolf tried to get the judge to throw out the verdicts, saying they were inconsistent. But Lamm didn’t buy the argument and moved on.
Saundra Adams addressed the court for the first time before the sentencing. Caudill hadn’t called her during the trial, instead using Cherica’s father, Jeff Moonie, as a witness.
Adams told the court about Chancellor Lee, the baby Rae Carruth wanted dead.
At 14 months old, she said, Chancellor Lee had cerebral palsy. He couldn’t hold a bottle or a spoon. He had not yet taken his first step.
Born 10 weeks prematurely on the chaotic night that his mother was shot, he couldn’t sit up on his own. His significant brain damage would ensure he would likely always need to live with a caregiver.
Still, Adams told the judge, Cherica’s baby showed strength every day.
“He is our miracle child,” she said tearfully.
She also addressed the punishment Carruth should receive.
“I don’t hate Rae Carruth,” she said, “because he is a part of my grandson. But in no way do I think he should get off easy. He has already had the greatest of mercy. His life has been spared.”
But, Adams said: “Don’t let this be a little smack on the wrist — ‘Oh, you’ve been a bad boy.’
“Let him take the punishment of a man — for once!”
Moments later, Lamm sentenced Carruth to prison for no less than 18 years and 11 months and no more than 24 years and four months.
The former Panther got credit for the 13 months he had already served, starting when the FBI captured him hiding in a friend’s car trunk in Tennessee in 1999.
He would have no chance at an early parole.
Carruth was immediately whisked away, transported by authorities to Central Prison in Raleigh.
A sudden confrontation
Within hours after the sentencing, Court TV had more drama than it bargained for on live TV.
Pennell, delayed by traffic, was 30 minutes late to his appointment to be interviewed by the network that had televised most of the trial. By the time he got there, Rae Carruth’s mother, Theodry, had her microphone on and was about to go on live.
Pennell was startled.
“My first thought,” he said, “was I shouldn’t do this. But I thought, you know, I’ll do it. Either I’ll leave, or she’ll leave, or we’ll sit here and act like adults.”
With Pennell sitting directly beside her, Theodry Carruth suddenly turned toward the jury foreman.
“I have to ask you this, because it’s been eating my heart up,” she said. “How many black people have you had in your house in the last five years?”
“Probably 40 or 50,” Pennell replied.
“Forty or 50? OK. What do you know about drug trafficking or drug calls?” she asked.
“Not a whole lot,” Pennell said.
“What was it about my son that made you feel he was guilty?” Theodry Carruth asked. “I really want to know.”
“Mrs. Carruth, based on the evidence that was given to us ... “ Pennell started.
She countered before he could finish: “Give me one shred of evidence that was presented ... besides the 911 call that was played so much it made me sick!”
“I will not sit here on live television and debate you,” Pennell said.
As the Court TV host tried to stop Theodry Carruth’s questioning, she started unhooking her TV gear. She dropped the earpiece and microphone in Pennell’s lap.
“Because what I feel about this gentleman is he is an upper-middle class or maybe medium-middle class gentleman who doesn’t know the plight of the black man, because you’ve been given everything while we have to fight for everything we have,” she said before leaving. “I don’t think you can sit in judgment of the evidence because there truly was none. They did not put my son at the scene.”
Theodry Carruth refused interview requests for this story. She has previously told me: “I don’t think anything I could possibly share would change public opinion of my son.” She later apologized for confronting Pennell on Court TV.
Pennell said in an interview that the remarks were “upsetting at the time” but that, in retrospect, he understood them.
“She had just found out her son had been sentenced to 18 or 19 years in jail,” Pennell said. “She’s a mother protecting her child.”
Did anyone win?
Carruth’s case had a profound effect on everyone associated with it, including the lawyers.
James Exum, who represented co-conspirator Michael Kennedy, said he still talks about Carruth’s mistakes to his clients every week.
“He wasn’t the only person in the world that fathered a child with someone he didn’t want to be with,” Exum said of Carruth. “But most of us pay child support, try to be in the child’s life, try to have a reasonable relationship with the other person…. You make a mistake, don’t compound it by doing stupid things that may cost someone a life.”
Caudill and Rudolf, 17 years later, assessed the trial’s outcome differently.
“There was no winner in this case,” Caudill said. “It was just a tragedy all around.”
Said Rudolf: “Looking back on it, that’s a win. You know, Rae is walking out of prison in October. ... In a lot of ways we sort of won that case.”
Rudolf also said the jury’s split decision was justified.
“Looking back on it now, I think in some strange way the jury sort of figured it out,” he said. “You know? And sort of compromised to a place that … even Rae can accept, ‘OK, I get it. I’m responsible for this situation so I needed to pay a price.’
“And so I’m not sitting here declaring victory. But in a strange sort of way, the jury probably got it right.”
An unlikely connection
Of the four co-defendants, only Carruth’s case went to trial. The other three men pleaded guilty to various charges.
Kennedy, who drove the car used in the drive-by shooting, served nearly 11 years in prison, getting out in 2011. Abraham, the front-seat passenger, served a little less than two years and was released in 2001.
Watkins, the triggerman, won’t be released until 2046.
Carruth is set to walk free on Oct. 22.
When the trial ended, the TV trucks left. So did the reporters. The four co-defendants went to prison. The attorneys moved on to new cases. Publicly, everything was over.
But privately, life for Saundra and Chancellor Lee Adams was only beginning. Largely by herself, she began the long and arduous but joyful project of raising her disabled grandson. Chancellor Lee’s significant brain damage and cerebral palsy — both resulting from the blood and oxygen deprivation he sustained the night his mother was shot — are obstacles they both deal with every day.
All four men have apologized in one way or another for their actions the night Cherica Adams was shot. And Saundra Adams has publicly said many times that she has forgiven all four. But she feels the most connection with Watkins. He has repeatedly shown more remorse than the other three, according to Adams.
I told Adams I visited Watkins in prison.
“Is he doing OK?” she asked. “Because I knew he had some health issues, and I was concerned.”
In his cell, Watkins still keeps a letter Adams wrote to him on April 18, 2003. Chancellor Lee was 3 years old at the time.
“If I kept a letter that you sent me in 2003, that means you made a great impression on me,” Watkins said. He later mailed me a copy of the letter.
You know I am suffering. Because of your actions, I will never be able to hold my beautiful daughter Cherica again. Because of your actions, my grandson Chancellor cannot do the simplest things like call me grandmommy or play ball with the other children. Because of your actions, I have a huge hole in my heart.
But despite my grief, I want you to know that I have forgiven you. I know you have suffered too for the horrible choices you made that day. I want you to know you will always be in my thoughts and prayers and I wish you peace.
An interview with Chancellor
Saundra Adams frequently uses the word “miracle” to describe Chancellor Lee.
He has had a beautiful and contagious smile from birth, and she often says her grandson is in the “Smile Ministry.”
For many years, she kept her grandson mostly shielded from the media. But she hasn’t shielded him from life.
“You watch him look at her,” said Docia Hickey, the doctor who cared for Chancellor Lee at the hospital in 1999 as he struggled to survive. “Her face lights up. His face lights up. They just adore each other.”
Adams said her grandson inherited many of his mother’s traits. She said she often thinks back to the courage Cherica Adams showed during the 911 call on the night of Chancellor Lee’s birth.
“She showed so much determination and focus during that time, and so did Chancellor,” Saundra Adams said. “Because he could have had a weak spirit and not really fought to live like he did.
“But he was determined as well that he was going to live. And I think he’s been determined since that time that he will live and be the best Chancellor that he can be.”
That spirit shows through with each accomplishment. Chancellor Lee has done many things doctors thought he might never do.
He goes to high school, always making straight A’s in classes designed for his intellectual ability. He has learned to talk. With physical therapy and the aid of a walker, he has learned to walk.
He rides horses. His dance team once performed at a Panthers game.
But mostly, he brings joy to people — especially his grandmother.
“Chancellor does not think he’s disabled,” she said. “He is abled differently. So he does not conduct himself like a helpless person.”
Chancellor Lee calls Saundra Adams “G-Mom.” Saundra has always told him that Cherica — the person Chancellor calls “his Mommy Angel” — is in heaven.
Although his dimple and positive outlook come from Cherica, she said, Saundra also tells him about the father he resembles so much.
In July, Saundra let me interview Chancellor. He answered most of the questions with a smile and one or two words.
He also proudly counted to 100 by tens, carefully spelled his first name and gave me a hug both at the beginning and end of the interview.
He answered questions about how old he’ll be on his next birthday (19) and his favorite horse’s name (Raider).
He repeated his favorite saying from church: “I can do anything, because God is with me.”
And he answered questions about his father.
Do you know the name of your father?
“Rae Carruth,” Chancellor Lee said.
Do you know where your father is now?
“Yeah,” he said.
Do you know what’s going to happen to him pretty soon?
“Get out,” he said.
Would you like to meet your father?