Chapter 5: On Trial
One of the most explosive trials in Charlotte history began to take shape in the first nine months of 2000. Former Carolina Panther Rae Carruth was going on trial, charged with first-degree murder in the death of Cherica Adams.
In 1999, Adams was Carruth’s pregnant girlfriend when she was shot four times on a dark Charlotte road. She managed to save her baby with a courageous 911 call.
The trial’s stakes were life and death. If convicted of first-degree murder, Carruth could receive the death penalty. If found not guilty, Carruth, 26, could potentially resume his NFL career.
As the October trial date approached, both the prosecution and the defense needed something.
The prosecution needed at least one of Carruth’s co-defendants to lay out the murder-for-hire plot and implicate Carruth.
Lead defense lawyer David Rudolf needed to present a believable theory as to why Carruth — who didn’t pull the trigger — also didn’t plan the murder. He thought he had one in the “drug-deal-gone-bad” alternate theory. And he had another villain in mind, too — Van Brett Watkins, the confessed triggerman.
James Exum, the lawyer for co-defendant Michael Kennedy, said: “In Watkins, you’ve got a bad guy, with a history of violent crime. So I can see David wanting to take him and make him the monster, and not Rae.”
Watkins knew enough to be able to help either the prosecution or the defense. But he was an unpredictable felon who was liable to say anything on the stand. It wasn’t clear if he would testify — and if he did, for which side.
‘Atrocious’ and ‘heinous’
Theodry Carruth at first wanted Johnnie Cochran to represent her son in court. Cochran helped NFL hall-of-famer O.J. Simpson beat two murder charges in a famous 1995 trial.
She didn’t get Cochran, but one of his law partners was a friend of Rudolf’s and recommended him instead.
Rudolf’s primary opponent in the courtroom was lead prosecutor Gentry Caudill, who’d already sent eight men to death row. Caudill was very familiar with the barbarous circumstances of her shooting.
“An ambush slaying of an innocent, trusting, pregnant young woman on a dark street leaving her on the side of the road to die — and leaving her unborn child with a life of disadvantages and challenges — that’s cruel,” Caudill said. “That’s atrocious. That’s heinous.”
The four co-defendants were in custody awaiting trial, all on first-degree murder charges:
▪ Van Brett Watkins, the admitted triggerman.
▪ Michael Kennedy, who had confessed to buying the gun and driving the car used in the drive-by shooting.
▪ Stanley Abraham, a friend of Kennedy’s who was also in the car the night Cherica Adams was shot.
▪ Carruth, accused of masterminding the conspiracy.
Caudill surveyed the evidence he did and didn’t have. There was no DNA evidence tying Carruth directly to the crime, for instance. And he made a decision. In May 2000, the Mecklenburg District Attorney’s Office offered the same plea bargain to all four men — second-degree murder, which would take the death penalty off the table.
The catch was that all four men had to take the plea or it would be withdrawn.
Only Watkins was interested. Carruth had no intention of pleading guilty to anything.
“I don’t know that he (Carruth) was innocent in the sense that he never did anything wrong,” Rudolf said in an interview with the Charlotte Observer this summer. “But he hadn’t hired these people to kill Cherica Adams. And there was never any thought that he was going to say he did that, because it just wasn’t true.”
‘Pointing fingers at one another’
Caudill withdrew the plea-bargain offers. He and his colleagues then filed a motion to join the cases and try all four defendants at once.
“It would be almost enjoyable to have the four defendants over there, pointing fingers at one another during the course of the trial,” Caudill said. “And that was what we hoped for, have them fighting among themselves.”
The court denied the motion to join, though, leaving Caudill and his colleagues to come up with a new strategy in what would be Caudill’s last huge criminal case before he became a state Superior Court judge.
Prosecutors decided to put Carruth on trial first. But to have the best chance of convicting him of first-degree murder, they thought they still needed the testimony of a co-defendant. Caudill returned to the idea of plea deals, this time offering them individually.
Kennedy and Abraham, his first two choices, turned prosecutors down flat. Watkins took the deal.
The trial begins
Jury selection for Carruth’s trial began on Oct. 23, 2000. The trial would frequently make national news, although the presidential campaign between George W. Bush and Al Gore was the biggest story in America at the time.
It took 17 days to seat the jury, but the difference in style of the two lead lawyers became apparent long before that.
Caudill stood 6-foot-2 and was a sober, dignified presence in the courtroom. Rudolf was shorter, more sarcastic and more prone to humorous give-and-take.
When the talkative Rudolf told Judge Charles Lamm during jury selection that he felt like he was getting a sore throat, Lamm quipped: “Maybe you should rest it more.”
“Touché,” Rudolf responded.
Once seated, the jury was composed of seven white men, two white women and three African-American women, but but no black men.
By the time the trial started, Carruth’s bank account was depleted. Defense attorneys asked Judge Lamm to declare Carruth indigent and appoint them as his state-paid attorneys. His legal defense would eventually cost taxpayers more than $200,000.
‘Hit me like a ton of bricks’
Caudill, a prosecutor for 28 years, worried about the case. But he also had a powerful piece of evidence in Cherica Adams’ 911 call.
“Yes, I had concerns,” Caudill said. “On the other hand, we had Cherica Adams and she was the strongest witness for herself — to her own murder.”
With cameras allowed in the courtroom, Court TV televised the trial live to a national cable audience. And in the opening minutes of his opening argument, Caudill pulled out his trump card, playing Adams’ entire 911 tape for the jury.
As Cherica Adams moaned in pain on the tape after being shot four times, she identified Carruth as being at the scene of the attack, then driving away when the shooting begins.
Some jurors blinked back tears. So did some members of Adams’ family.
Said Clark Pennell, who became the jury foreman: “I thought that was probably the largest piece of evidence in the entire trial and they pulled it out on Day 1, Minute 1. It was very emotional for all of us who were there.”
It was the first time Cherica’s mother, Saundra Adams, had heard the entirety of the 12-minute tape.
“I can still remember that hit me like a ton of bricks,” Saundra said. “To hear the pain in her voice — but still to sense that determination! That through the pain and whatever I have to go through, I’ve got to get to safety for my son.”
Rudolf knew the 911 call would be difficult to overcome.
“I don’t have any doubt that that was the most important evidence,” Rudolf said. “And I have no doubt that whatever Cherica said was her honest impression at the time.”
When the time came for Rudolf’s opening argument, he didn’t speak at first.
He instead flipped to a blank page on a large easel and wrote on a poster-sized piece of paper: “If he had just given us the money none of this would have happened. It was Rae’s fault.”
The quote supposedly came from Watkins to a jailer in a private moment. It referred to Watkins’ anger over Carruth backing out of a drug deal that Carruth was supposed to finance.
Watkins has long denied saying that and does to this day. But the testimony of the jailer who claimed Watkins did say it was central to Rudolf’s defense, enough so that he would take a very big gamble to be able to use it.
‘He was used’
During his four-hour opening argument, Rudolf threw verbal darts at Watkins, the man he believed would be the prosecution’s key witness.
But the prosecution strategy had changed.
During jury selection, Michael Kennedy’s lawyer had approached Caudill. Kennedy had a change of heart and would agree to testify against Carruth without a plea agreement.
Caudill was shocked. But Kennedy, the undisputed wheelman in the drive-by shooting and the man who acquired the murder weapon, wasn’t interested in protecting Carruth.
James Exum, Kennedy’s attorney at the time, said he believes Kennedy was a young man who made a huge mistake getting mixed up with an NFL player he idolized.
“A lot of that was because (Kennedy) was starstruck by Rae Carruth, who he thought he had befriended, which clearly wasn’t the case,” Exum said. “He was used.”
Charged with first-degree murder and, like Carruth, potentially facing the death penalty, Kennedy made the nearly unprecedented offer to testify for the state with no deal.
That meant Watkins wouldn’t be called as a prosecution witness. The need for his testimony had disappeared, because Caudill considered Kennedy a more reliable witness.
Why would Kennedy make the unorthodox offer?
Kennedy had said so much in his initial confession, Exum said, that Kennedy couldn’t win at trial. And Exum had confidence Caudill and the other prosecutors would do right by his client after Carruth’s trial.
But that decision came with a risk that was growing.
Kennedy’s family began receiving death threats from blocked numbers, Exum said. Kennedy was in jail, but still feared he could be a target. His mother was also threatened. Revealing those threats for the first time, Exum said that he believes the intent was to make Kennedy “tone down what he was saying against Rae, because it was looked upon as ‘snitching.’
“Well,” Exum said, “one person’s snitching is another person’s telling the truth.”
An iron-faced look
Despite the threats, Kennedy took the stand as scheduled.
He was an admitted drug dealer, and that was established early. But as a witness, Kennedy spoke in calm, even tones, and he never buckled under cross-examination.
He testified that Carruth commissioned Watkins for the hit. He mentioned that Panthers teammates had been teasing Carruth for fathering a baby with Adams.
And he testified that Carruth gave him an “iron-faced” look and threatened to kill him if he didn’t help with the murder plot.
Rudolf tried to trip Kennedy up in his cross-examination and called him a liar.
But Rudolf said in the interview in August that he didn’t make much of a dent with Kennedy at trial.
“My impression is that I didn’t think I undermined his credibility in a really significant way,” Rudolf said. “I think there were certain things I impeached him about — his drug dealing, as I recall. And I certainly cross-examined him about the drug deal itself. ...
“But I don’t remember feeling like, ‘Boy I got him!’ So I think, in truth, he was an effective witness.
“It doesn’t mean he wasn’t lying. It just means that he was a good liar.”
Kennedy’s testimony damaged Rudolf’s proposed “drug deal gone bad” theory, the cornerstone of the Carruth defense.
Rudolf, who was authorized by Carruth to speak on his behalf for this story, said Carruth was surprised, even now, that Kennedy turned on him since the two were friends.
“What Rae says is he cannot understand why Kennedy didn’t just tell the truth,” Rudolf said. “The only sense he makes out of it is here’s Kennedy, driving the car, Watkins shoots this woman ... so he (Kennedy) is making a deal.
“And it’s not going to do him any good to roll on Watkins. So the only person he can provide evidence about is Rae.”
Carruth always expected Watkins to lie, Rudolf said, but was shocked by Kennedy.
Exum disputed the idea that Kennedy, who refused an interview with The Observer, lied on the stand.
“For reasons I won’t go into,” Exum said, “Michael’s story was absolutely on point and is exactly what happened.
“What Michael said was the truth. None of that was made up.”
Threats to other women
After Kennedy testified, Caudill called Candace Smith to the stand.
She was a former stripper who’d had simultaneous affairs with Carruth and NBA player Charles Shackleford — and also was the woman who went to the hospital with Carruth the night Cherica Adams was shot.
As a prosecution witness, Smith told jurors that Carruth had confessed to her about participating in the shooting by leading Adams into the ambush. She also testified that Carruth “later stated he wished she would die.”
The defense responded by implying Smith’s testimony was unreliable and that of an ex-girlfriend angry because she was scorned.
But Shackleford corroborated Smith’s testimony.
The state also called Michelle Wright and Amber Turner, two other former girlfriends of Carruth.
Wright was the mother of Carruth’s other son, who was born five years before Chancellor Lee. Turner testified she had an abortion when she became pregnant with Carruth’s baby.
Their testimony painted Carruth in a poor light.
Wright testified that once, during a conversation about bringing their son from California to Charlotte for a visit, Carruth told her: “Don’t be surprised if you get in a car accident.”
Turner said on the stand that Carruth pressured her to get the abortion, saying: “Don’t make me send somebody out there to kill you. You know I would do it. You can’t have this baby.”
Wright said in a July interview that she and Carruth were on “amicable” terms and that he has apologized for treating her poorly 20 years ago. But she called back in October to say she and Carruth had a falling out after a recent phone conversation and were no longer speaking.
Wright said in both interviews that Carruth has talked fairly often to their 24-year-old son during Carruth’s time in prison and that Carruth and their son have a “decent relationship. ”
Wright also said everything she testified to in 2000 was true. She said she knew Carruth wasn’t serious about her having an accident — but that it still angered her.
“Yeah, I know he was joking,” Wright said, “but I didn’t like the joke.”
A huge gamble
Carruth’s trial included more than 70 witnesses and 300 exhibits. But the witness everyone remembered was Watkins.
After the prosecution decided not to call him as a witness, there was a possibility Watkins wouldn’t testify. Rudolf debated with his co-counsel, Charlotte lawyer Chris Fialko, about the risk of putting a volatile witness on the stand.
Ultimately, Rudolf determined he needed Watkins to testify. That testimony would open the door for a key witness Rudolf needs to bolster his drug-deal-gone-bad defense — Sergeant Shirley Riddle. She was the jailer who had allegedly heard Watkins say he shot Adams in a fit of rage after she flipped him the middle finger that night on Rea Road, and also heard Watkins say that if Carruth had just financed the drug deal as planned that “none of this would have happened.”
Watkins, in a jailhouse interview, said Riddle’s story isn’t true. He said that Riddle was “paparazzi” and tried to lure him into a confession by slipping him an occasional Hershey’s bar.
Rudolf, sitting in a conference room in his Charlotte office in August in front of a detailed courtroom sketch of the Carruth trial, recounted the decision to call Watkins to the stand.
“And let me just say, that’s a gutsy move, you know?” he said. “I’m putting on the hitman — just to get that one piece of evidence. But I needed it. Chris Fialko thought I was crazy for putting on Van Brett Watkins. But I needed that evidence.”
What Rudolf got was a whole lot more.
Verbal sparring with a giant
In the courtroom, the mood was tense.
At 6-foot-3 and 286 pounds, Watkins was huge and menacing. Juror Herb Brown said it was like Watkins “didn’t have any soul to him — any conscience about what was right and wrong.”
Judge Lamm seemed to feel the same way. Though Watkins’ legs were shackled, Lamm stationed a deputy between him and Watkins, and another between the hitman and the jury.
It was a rare courtroom move, and Rudolf was fine with it.
But the acknowledgment of the danger Lamm felt Watkins presented didn’t sit well with Caudill, who thought one of the deputies was practically sitting in Watkins’ lap.
“I can understand that he was a scary-looking fellow,” Caudill said. “But that certainly added to the picture … that the defense wanted to paint.”
Watkins and Rudolf verbally sparred for two days. Watkins maintained that Carruth hired him to kill Adams. Rudolf tried to trip him up with questions designed to prove Watkins killed her on his own.
Once, Rudolf asked Watkins if he knows one of his medications was designed to control hallucinations.
“You’re hallucinating in taking this case to trial,” Watkins shot back, “thinking that you’re going to win.”
In his testimony, Watkins described the night of the murder in detail. He cursed a number of times. Watkins admitted he had once been overheard saying “I hope the bitch dies.” But when Rudolf pressed him on this, Watkins said he wasn’t talking about Cherica Adams.
Watkins extended his left arm, pointed toward the defendant and said: “That’s the bitch I was talking about — Rae Carruth.”
Watkins admits to numerous past crimes — although not to the four previous murders he claimed in a jailhouse interview.
Almost 19 years later, Watkins remains proud of his testimony. He said he still can’t stand Carruth and was happy with the role he played sending him to prison. He wishes Carruth’s sentence was longer and continues to wish harm upon him.
“I won’t forgive Rae Carruth,” Watkins said. “I want him dead.”
Speaking first of his testimony and then of the murder, Watkins also said: “I consider what I did the best thing I did in my life — after the worst thing.”
‘He knows the whole deal!’
Whether you believed Watkins or not, his testimony was compelling theater.
During one of Watkins’ days on the stand, about 20 Carolina Panthers gathered in front of a large TV in their locker room after practice. They occasionally roared with laughter at something Watkins said.
Several of Carruth’s former Panthers teammates had testified on his behalf — including wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad, fullback William Floyd and linebacker Hannibal Navies — but Watkins’ and Kennedy’s testimony have planted a seed of doubt.
Mike Minter, now the head football coach at Campbell University, was one of the Panthers players and team leaders keeping up with the trial.
Said Minter: “You’re still hoping and praying that’s not him. He didn’t have nothing to do with it. (But then) when you have people who were involved telling the whole thing, this is when you say, ‘OK, well, heck, he (Carruth) was there! He knows the whole deal!’
“That’s when it blows you away.”
Some members of the jury were skittish with Watkins on the stand.
James Gronquist, a lawyer for co-defendant Stanley Abraham, said: “If you look at the jury at this point, they were not leaning forward. They were back on their heels like, ‘This guy — get him out of here before he does something really bad!’”
In his testimony, Watkins stuck to his story about the conspiracy, but he also got increasingly angry at Rudolf as the questioning progressed.
When Rudolf kept haranguing Watkins about why a hitman would come to an assignment without a gun, Watkins finally exploded.
“I didn’t need a gun, OK?” Watkins yelled. “For me to kill somebody, I don’t need a gun. Can’t you look and see? I’m 286 pounds. OK? I would rip you like a rag doll!”
The room fell silent. There was a pause.
The “rag doll” quote became the soundbite of the trial.
Juror Herb Brown said: “Whenever (Watkins) told David Rudolf ‘I could rip you apart like a rag doll!’ that influenced me. This guy was dangerous. Without a soul.”
James Exum, the lawyer for prosecution witness Kennedy, had a different reaction. He said with a laugh, “At that time, David Rudolf and I hadn’t gotten cool, so I kind of liked it.”
Rudolf followed up Watkins’ “rip you like a rag doll” threat by saying: “Is that what you were going to do to Cherica?”
Watkins glared at him.
“I could’ve, but I didn’t, OK?” he said.
Then Watkins launched a rambling, two-minute monologue, uninterrupted by Rudolf.
He told jurors, as Kennedy had, that he was afraid of Carruth — not physically, but of Carruth’s potential power to order him killed by unnamed gang members in California if Watkins didn’t kill Cherica Adams.
“For six months I avoided him,” Watkins said of Carruth. “I didn’t go ahead and do it. I couldn’t do it. He forced me to do it.
“He threatened me and the ones I love. And it’s still not over. So feel it. Feel the truth.”
After the monologue, Rudolf decided to end his cross-examination, with Watkins’ “rag doll” outburst still on everyone’s mind.
“I’m done, your honor,” Rudolf said.
“You’re right about that,” Watkins said.
‘Did that just happen?’
The jury was nearly in shock. When the trial took a recess, they retreated to the jury room.
“You look at each other,” Pennell said, “and you think: ‘Oh my God! Did that just happen?’ ”
Rudolf took Watkins’ outburst as a positive, given what he was trying to prove with Riddle’s testimony. He said in an interview that Watkins’ outburst was a “once-in-a-lifetime moment.”
“In some ways, him going nuts on the witness stand was just a bonus,” Rudolf said. “It was a very nice bonus, but it was just a bonus. That wasn’t the reason (to call Watkins).”
Rudolf soon brought on Riddle to impeach Watkins’ testimony. He also called a number of experts to cast doubt on prosecution findings, and character witnesses who praised Carruth and described him as non-violent.
Monique Young, who has been a friend of Carruth’s for 20 years, was among those character witnesses.
“I had never seen a violent side of him,” she said in an interview. “I’ve never seen him really angry. Maybe upset a little bit? But not angry. He’s that fun guy that’s always laughing and joking.”
‘Do I believe Rae Carruth?
Rudolf finally decided not to put Carruth on the stand.
Before that decision, the attorney had subjected Carruth to a mock cross-examination, with Charlotte lawyer Bill Diehl playing the part of Caudill.
Asked at the time how Carruth did, Diehl told the Observer: “I thought he did very well. He answered the questions in a way that was believable, candid and non-emotional.”
James Gronquist, the lawyer for Carruth’s co-defendant Abraham, said he doesn’t believe that’s true. “From what I heard, he did very poorly,” Gronquist said. “That’s one of the major reasons they didn’t call him.”
When I spoke with Carruth on the telephone for 20 minutes this past spring, I tried to ask him why he chose not to testify.
He wouldn’t answer that or any other question for attribution, wanting to speak only off the record.
But Rudolf didn’t want to open up Carruth to cross-examination. That could have shifted the trial’s focus.
Rudolf used the same strategy in the murder trial of North Carolina author Michael Peterson several years later in another high-profile case in Durham, one that prompted the true-crime documentary “The Staircase.”
“My approach generally is that trials are about whether there’s reasonable doubt or not, whether the state makes its case beyond a reasonable doubt,” Rudolf said. “Because now the jury is just sort of saying: ‘OK, do I believe Rae Carruth?’ It becomes just that, as opposed to really focusing on reasonable doubt.”
Ultimately, Rudolf made the final call. Carruth would stay silent and hope that reasonable doubt had already been established in the jurors’ minds.
“In Rae’s case, you know, the facts themselves just didn’t make any sense to me,” Rudolf said. “And once Van Brett Watkins testified, and sort of showed what a whack job he is, I just didn’t think it was necessary.”
Outside the courtroom at the time, Rudolf told reporters who asked why Carruth wasn’t going to testify in his own defense: “Rae wasn’t there, so he can’t say what happened. … Rae doesn’t have a whole lot to add.”
Carruth actually had been there in the moments just before the shooting. Rudolf said that Carruth told him this summer that he had fled when the car with Watkins in the backseat pulled alongside Cherica Adams’ car.
Carruth gave Rudolf a new detail, first reported by the Observer in September, about why he ran away that night — Carruth thought Watkins was going to try to shoot him rather than Cherica Adams.
“I think that Rae was embarrassed to say that,” Rudolf said. “I don’t think he wanted to get up on the witness stand and say that he ran. … And then of course you had things like he’s found in the trunk of a car. … “There were some ugly facts that he would have been cross-examined about mercilessly.”
Killer charm or implausible plot?
During closing arguments, prosecutor Caudill focused on Carruth’s contradictions.
Carruth, he said, can turn on the charm. But he also pointed out that Carruth’s defense that he had nothing to do with the shooting seemed disingenuous given that Carruth called the Villager Lodge, the budget motel in Charlotte where the hitman Watkins had been staying, 23 times in the week leading up to the murder.
“People are drawn to him, it’s obvious,” Caudill told the jury. “But there’s another side to him. ... Cherica Adams saw it too late.”
Rudolf spent his closing argument trying to convince the jury the state’s case was implausible.
He asked the jury if it really seemed likely that a man like Carruth — with no criminal record and a promising NFL career ahead of him — would make his first crime a murder for hire.
“You don’t go from being a nice guy, gentle, a jokester, to being a contract killer,” Rudolf told the jury. “There’s a disconnect here.”
Finally, 14 months after Cherica Adams was shot and 11 weeks after the trial began, the case went to the jury on Jan. 16, 2001.
The jurors deliberated for 20 hours over parts of four days before reaching a decision. Pennell, as jury foreman, read it in court.
“We, the jury,” Pennell began, “return a unanimous verdict as follows …”