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Rae Carruth Murder Trial

Curruth found guilty
                   GUILTY VERDICT

His football career may have fizzled before ever coming close to a Super Bowl, but former Carolina Panther Rae Carruth now faces a verdict of guilty of conspiracy to commit murder, shooting into an occupied vehicle and using an instrument to destroy an unborn child in connection with the Nov. 16, 1999, shooting of Cherica Adams.

As Judge Charles Lamm read the verdict in the courtroom, Carruth stood emotionless next to his lawyer, David Rudolf. Adams' relatives cried as they heard the verdict, a mixture of good and bad news for both sides. The verdict, rendered by a jury that returned to deliberations Thursday after informing Lamm they were deadlocked, appeared to be a compromise.

The jury could have convicted Carruth of first-degree murder based on either conspiracy or felony murder — with the underlying felony being shooting into an unoccupied vehicle. Rudolf admitted after the proceeding that he was upset by the verdict saying, "I think it's logically inconsistent and that's something that troubles me greatl,." but the defense lawyer was optimistic about an appeal. "The first degree murder charge is gone forevermore," Rudolf said.

Cherica Adams

The Trial

During the eight-week trial, prosecutors argued that Carruth masterminded the shooting to avoid paying child support and rid himself of his relationship with Adams. Adams survived for nearly a month before succumbing to four gunshot wounds. The baby, Chancellor, was delivered by an emergency Caesarean shortly after the shooting and lives with Adams' mother. The defense maintained that Carruth was looking forward to the birth of his second child and could easily afford child support. Carruth's lawyers also contended that the shooting was the result of a drug-related dispute.

The Bone Collector

In his opening argument, defense attorney David Rudolf said that admitted gunman Van Brett Watkins and wheelman Michael Kennedy were trying to pressure Carruth into financing a drug deal for them. When Carruth ultimately refused, the two men, with co-defendant Stanley Abraham, followed Carruth and Adams from a movie theater where they had seen "The Bone Collector", Rudolf contended. The couple was originally en route to Adams' apartment, the defense said, but Adams changed her mind about Carruth coming over and the two parted directions. Carruth was already headed to teammate Hannibal Navies' house — and on the phone with another woman in Atlanta — by the time Kennedy pulled up alongside Adams' BMW and Watkins opened fire, according to the defense.

But prosecutors said that Carruth was in front of Adams' vehicle when the shooting occurred and that phone records showing a flurry of calls between the cell phones of Carruth and Kennedy around the time of the shooting were indications of a hit being arranged. Testimony from 72 witnesses took 27 days in court to complete, but drama kept the trial moving at a face pace.

Voices from the Grave

The first pieces of evidence introduced to the jury were arguably the most powerful. They were the words of Cherica Adams herself. Through a host of medical and emergency personnel called to the stand, the prosecution admitted into evidence the 911 recording in which Adams moaned in pain as she tried to guide paramedics to her location. During the call, she said Rae Carruth's car was in front of hers at the time of the shooting and speculated that he was responsible for it. "I don't know what to think," she said. She also wrote three pages of notes at the hospital, further implicating Carruth in the shooting.

"Cherica Adams wasn't supposed to be an eyewitness to what the defendant had done to her and to her son. She wasn't supposed to die, but she did," prosecutor Gentry Caudill told the jury in a powerful opening statement. Defense attorney David Rudolf attempted to refute the reliability of Adams' claims, saying that she was traumatized by the shooting and later heavily medicated. Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, a defense memory expert, called changes between the 911 call and the hospital notes significant, and Dr. Gary Pellom, an anesthesiology expert, testified the medication Adams was on could have impaired her memory. But their testimony may not have been strong enough to outweigh the power of Adams' own words.

The Co-defendants

Adams wasn't the only one to implicate Carruth. The man who pulled the trigger said that Carruth commissioned him to kill Adams. "I did it because he made me do it," Van Brett Watkins testified, gesturing toward Carruth. "He dragged me into something I didn't want to be involved in." During his testimony, the hulking ex-convict ranged from threatening, fiery exchanges with Rudolf to quiet tears.

Although Watkins had hatched a deal last year with the prosecution to avoid a death sentence in exchange for his testimony, prosecutors didn't call him to the stand. After his deal was made, a sheriff's deputy came forward claiming that Watkins had admitted to her that Carruth was not involved in the shooting. When Rudolf was unsuccessful in his bid to admit Riddle's statement as an exception to hearsay, he called Watkins to the stand. The sheriff's deputy, Sgt. Shirley Riddle, also took the stand for the defense, reiterating her claim that Watkins said he shot Adams in a moment of rage after a drug deal with Carruth went sour, not because the former football player hired him.

Prosecutors did call another co-defendant, however. In a surprise move, they brought Michael Kennedy to the stand without immunity to say that he drove the car as Watkins shot Adams and that he had purchased the murder weapon according to Carruth's orders. Like Watkins, Kennedy told a similar story about Carruth wanting Adams and their unborn baby dead so he wouldn't have to pay child support. "He was there," Kennedy insisted. "He stopped his car and she stopped behind him."

The other co-defendant in the case, Stanley Abraham, was seated in the passenger seat of the car when the shooting took place. He did not testify and has not cut a deal with prosecutors. According to his lawyers and Kennedy's testimony, Abraham was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. In his closing argument, Rudolf suggested to the jury that Abraham was the least culpable in the crime and that had Carruth really hired Kennedy and Watkins, Abraham surely could have cut a deal for himself. But prosecutor Gentry Caudill countered in his rebuttal closing that, like Watkins and Kennedy, Abraham is evil — but that none are as evil as Carruth.

The Women in Carruth's Life

A parade of women took the stand during the trial, some to sing Carruth's praises but others to discredit Carruth as a womanizer who wanted to kill the women he impregnated. One ex-girlfriend, Candace Smith, testified that Carruth admitted involvement in the shooting as the two stood in the hospital waiting room where doctors were working to save Cherica Adams and Chancellor. "He said, 'I can't get in trouble, can I? Because I didn't actually pull the trigger,'" testified Smith, a former stripper who did not wish to have her face on camera. She also said that after Adams refused to have an abortion, Carruth told her "he would have someone go over and kick her in the stomach and make her have a miscarriage," she testified.

Another ex-girlfriend said that Carruth threatened to kill her if she didn't abort his unborn child. Amber Turner, testifying as a rebuttal witness for the state, said that Carruth also joked about having his first child, Rae Jr., and Michelle Wright, the boy's mother, killed. Wright also testified during the rebuttal case, saying that Carruth joked that she would get into a car accident. But Carruth had his share of female supporters on the stand. Starlita Walker, a platonic female friend said Carruth loved kids and regularly took her 7-year-old son on outings. Carruth "doesn't have a mean hair on his head," according to one ex-girlfriend, Dawnyle Willard, who also testified that Carruth broke down when he heard Adams died and that he believed she was his only hope for exoneration.

Monique Young, Carruth's friend, testified he was the "sweetest person I knew," and his own cousin, Tiffany Adams, said Carruth gave her the chance to go to college after he was drafted by the NFL. Tanya Ferguson, who dated Carruth's teammate Hannibal Navies, cried as she described Carruth as a "very loving person." Even Wright, though maintaining that Carruth was not a good father to their son, acknowledged that Carruth was a good person. Turner's own mother testified that she never heard him raise his voice, and she even mouthed "I love you" to him after stepping down from the witness stand.

Team Players

A host of professional athletes took the stand on Carruth's behalf. Leonard Wheeler, William Floyd and Muhsin Muhammad, all fellow Panthers, painted the wide receiver as a soft-spoken jokester who enjoyed playing video games, loved kids and volunteered his time in the community. Navies, a teammate with Carruth both on the Panthers and at the University of Colorado, testified that Carruth seemed fine when he arrived at his house after his date with Adams. Even a former professional basketball player took the stand, but his testimony wasn't as positive as that of Carruth's ex-teammates. Charles Shackleford, who played for the Charlotte Hornets, also took the stand. The married athlete admitted to having an affair with Candace Smith, during which time she told him that Carruth admitted responsibility in the shooting, he testified.

Phone Records

The phone played a pivotal role in the case. Prosecutors presented records of calls made between Carruth's and Kennedy's cell phones around the time of the shooting. But through the testimony of private investigator Ron Guerette, the defense contended the pattern of calls reflected a drug deal, not a contract killing. The defense also said that Carruth was on the phone with another girlfriend, Alondia Cheney, at the time of the shooting, proving that he was not directly in front of Adams' car.

The Fifth Amendment

In the end, it seemed the jury believed Carruth capable of committing criminal acts more than they believed the glowing portrayals painted by his allies. The drug-deal theory was not mentioned much by the defense after opening arguments, and several witnesses were conspicuously absent from the stand. Among those who did not take the stand were Alondia Cheney, Stanley Abraham and Wendy Cole who drove Carruth in the trunk of her car to Tennessee.

Perhaps the witness jurors wanted to hear from most was Carruth himself, who chose not to testify during the trial.

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Rae Carruth

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Charged with masterminding the drive-by murder of his pregnant girlfriend, Rae Carruth, 26, is the first pro-athlete facing capital murder, in a case that has more twists and turns than a football game.

Also at stake is the future of Carruth's son born hours after the shooting. Chancellor Lee Adams, who already faces life with no mother, could be orphaned as a result of the verdict.

One of Carruth's three co-defendants has already admitted to pulling the trigger that killed Cherica Adams, Carruth's 24-year-old girlfriend, who was seven months pregnant with his child. Under a plea deal, triggerman Van Brett Watkins escaped a capital murder trial in exchange for testimony implicating Carruth. But less than a week before jury selection began, Watkins told an entirely different story -- one that could clear Carruth.

Prosecutors claim that Carruth set up Adams' murder to avoid paying child support, while the defense claims that the former wide receiver is the victim of a frame-up after refusing to finance a drug deal.

By most accounts, Cherica Adams was not star-struck by Rae Carruth. The one-time model first became acquainted with professional athletes as a teenager, babysitting for children of the Charlotte Hornets players. Friends told the Charlotte Observer that Cherica, known as "Cookie," would chat at games with high-profile players she knew, including Shaquille O'Neal.

While in college, Adams interned for the Panthers. She also worked briefly in a topless dance club that athletes were known to frequent. Some say Adams met Carruth during her stint at the club, but most friends and relatives of the couple say the two met at a party at Panther Ernie Mills' house.

Carruth and Adams began dating, though not exclusively.

On Nov. 15, 1999, the night of the shooting, the couple were only on their second date since Adams' pregnancy, prosecutors say.

On that Monday evening date, Adams and Carruth went to a 9:45 p.m. showing of The Bone Collector -- a film about a police hunt for a killer. They left the Regal Cinemas in South Charlotte in separate cars, with Adams driving in her black BMW and Carruth driving in front of her in his white Ford Expedition.

Within minutes, another car drove up alongside Adams' and opened fire. Four bullets struck her in the back, damaging her stomach, liver and right lung, but she managed to pull over and call 911 on her cell phone.

By the time police arrived, both Carruth's car and the car carrying the culprits were long gone.

Adams, distraught and in pain, told the dispatcher that Carruth was in the car in front of hers when someone pulled up beside her and opened fire, according to court papers. She even expressed her suspicions that Carruth was behind the shooting, telling the operator, "I think he did it. I don't know what to think."

Adams was rushed to Carolina Medical Center, where doctors delivered a baby boy by Caesarean section 10 weeks early. Adams had picked the baby's name, Chancellor Lee, months earlier.

During the 30 days Adams managed to cling to life, she scrawled three pages of notes recollecting the shooting. She suggested that Carruth blocked her path as the other car drove up beside her.

"He was driving in front of me and stopped in the road," the notes say. "He blocked the front."

Eight days later, on Thanksgiving Day, police arrested and charged Carruth for conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, attempted murder and shooting into an occupied vehicle.

Also arrested and charged was Van Brett Watkins a 44-year-old auto detailer with a criminal past who had done odd jobs for Carruth.

The arrests of the two other men allegedly in the car with Watkins followed. Michael Eugene Kennedy, 25, another auto detailer who knew Watkins, was believed to be the driver, and Stanley Abraham, 19, Kennedy's best friend, was allegedly in the passenger seat when the shooting occurred.

According to police, phone records show that Carruth and Kennedy were talking to each other on their cellular phones at the time of the shooting.

Though prosecutors have remained tight-lipped about their theory of the crime, motions filed by the state reveal some insight into how they believe the shooting unfolded: Wanting to rid himself of Adams and her unborn baby, Carruth met with the three men at his house shortly before his date with her. While Carruth and Adams were at the movies, the three men went in a rental car to purchase a gun with $100 Carruth gave Kennedy. After buying the gun, they waited in a gas station parking lot near the movie theater. When Carruth and Adams emerged, the three men followed each of their cars. Watkins, seated in the backseat, fired five shots at Adams.

The only hitch in this alleged plan was that Adams lived to tell about it -- at least temporarily.

A week after his arrest, the Carolina Panthers put Carruth, still in custody at the time, on unpaid leave. A few days later on Dec. 7, Carruth was released on a $3 million bond with the agreement that he would turn himself in if either Adams or the baby died.

On Dec. 14, Adams succumbed to her injuries. The cause of her death was multiple organ failure. Charges against Carruth and the other suspects were upgraded to murder.

Carruth, the only suspect free on bail, was supposed to turn himself in. But an hour after learning of Adams' death he was in the trunk of a Toyota Camry driven by a female friend heading to Tennessee.

According to prosecutors, Carruth wanted friend Wendy Cole to drive him to California. Instead, she called his mother, Theodry Carruth, who alerted his bail bondsman out of fear for her son's safety. She appeared on national television, telling Good Morning America that she was in contact with her son and that he was going to turn himself in to police.

Twenty-one hours and 500 miles later, Carruth was taken into custody by the FBI who had discovered him in the trunk in a motel parking lot in Wildersville, Tenn. Among the supplies they found in the trunk with Carruth were a cell phone, candy bars, bottles to hold his urine and $3,900 in cash.

Ironically, it was only at this juncture -- after Carruth had become a fugitive -- that the NFL severed all ties with the wide receiver.

Carruth gave a statement to the FBI, claiming that he was not at the crime scene when Adams was shot. Further, Carruth said that he did not learn of the attack until the following morning. According to the statement, Carruth said he was in front of Adams' car briefly, heading toward her apartment after the movie.

But before they got there, he said, she changed her mind about him staying over. He says that she pulled up alongside his car and told him not to come with her. Then he drove off, heading to the home of teammate Hannibal Navies.

Proving that he was driving carefree to Navies house, Carruth said, was a phone call he placed to a girlfriend in Atlanta from his cell phone around the time of the shooting. Before dialing her number, however, he accidentally speed-dialed Kennedy's cell phone, got his voice mail and hung up before dialing the correct phone number. Phone records show that he did place a 16-minute call to Atlanta at 12:27 a.m., more than a half-hour after he called Kennedy.

Other than finding Carruth guilty of premeditated murder, prosecutors have one other chance to execute the former wide receiver. They must convince the jury that Carruth murdered Adams while committing another felony -- trying to kill his unborn baby. Though intended to punish unlawful abortions, Article 11 of the North Carolina Criminal Law provision makes it illegal for an individual to use or employ drugs or "any instrument or other means with intent thereby to destroy such child" after the first 20 weeks of a woman's pregnancy. The only exception is in instances when the preganancy must be terminated to spare the mother's life.

In January, a grand jury indicted the four suspects for murder, for conspiracy to commit murder and for using a firearm with the intent to kill an unborn baby, a rarely used state law written to regulate abortion.

Prosecutors offered all four suspects a simple deal: plead guilty, testify against the other defendants and avoid a possible death sentence. Nonetheless, their alleged acts would guarantee a lengthy prison term. Even with no previous criminal record, the best Carruth could have hoped for was a 30-year sentence.

Carruth's lawyers announced they would steadfastly refuse any agreement with the prosecutors, saying that their client was looking forward to standing trial so that he could clear his name.

But while Carruth turned down a chance to avoid the death penalty, career criminal Watkins cut a deal.

Watkins pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, discharging a firearm into Adams' car and attempting to kill her unborn baby. Watkins, whose sentencing won't be scheduled until after the trials of Carruth and his co-defendants, faces up to 50 years in prison.

As part of the deal, Watkins agreed to testify that Carruth offered to pay him $5,000 to beat Adams so severely that she would suffer a miscarriage. Carruth later decided against the beating, according to Watkins, opting instead for a permanent solution. Carruth then asked Watkins to kill her, prosecuters allege.

Kennedy corroborated Watkins' account that Carruth arranged the shooting and that Carruth was at the scene when the shooting occurred.

Kennedy further claimed that Carruth gave him $100 for a gun and coerced him into buying the murder weapon, threatening his life if he refused.

Watkins, an ex-convict whose rap sheet includes several convictions for violent crimes, including threatening a police officer with a knife, also has a history of mental illness. He even requires anti-psychotic drugs, according to his lawyer, Jean Lawson.

Given Watkins' record of physical and psychological instability, it was not a complete surprise to learn that Watkins has recently changed his story. Just days before jury selection, the defense learned of a conversation Watkins had with a Mecklenburg Sheriff's sergeant. According to the sergeant's statement, Watkins told him that he shot Adams because she made an obscene gesture at him, not because Carruth had hired him as a hitman.

"She looked over at the car and seen us, she flipped me off. ... I lost it. I just started shooting," Watkins reportedly said.

According to a motion filed by Carruth's lawyers, Watkins also said that he was angry about Carruth's refusal to finance a drug deal. This anger, not any prior arrangement, is what led him, Kennedy and Abraham to follow Carruth on the night of the shooting. Adams, in other words, was an accidental victim.

"It was Rae's fault," Watkins said, according to the motion. "If he had just given us the money none of this would have happened."

By changing his account, he not only jeopardized the state's case against Carruth, but his own fate. His plea deal can be nullified if he recants his story on the stand.

The latest account by Watkins fits into the defense's theory that Watkins is a drug trafficker who funnels drugs into Charlotte from Atlanta. The defense admit that Carruth initially agreed to loan Watkins money to purchase a large quantity of drugs, but that he later had second thoughts when Watkins showed up at his house with a bag full of marijuana just prior to his date with Adams.

The defense maintains that, when Kennedy asked him to reconsider, Carruth agreed to meet up with the three men after his date.

According to Carruth's lawyers, not only did the former pro-football player have no involvement in the shooting, he was looking forward to the birth of his second child.

While the relationship between Adams and Carruth was obviously more than platonic, some teammates of Carruth described Adams as a friend. Others called it a fling. Carruth's mother has said that she had never even heard of Adams until the shooting.

Although it's unclear whether Adams objected to a casual relationship, Carruth clearly was dating other women. The day following the shooting, another woman Carruth was seeing, Nakish Stewart, says Carruth was at her apartment in tears, according to a New York Times report.

Carruth even offered a cell phone call to another woman in Atlanta as an alibi during the shooting.

One key witness in the state's case is Candace Smith, Carruth's ex-girlfriend, who says she was still dating Carruth while he was seeing Adams. She says she was at Carruth's side as doctors fought to save Adams and the baby.

Smith claims that as he stood in the hospital waiting area, Carruth said he hated Adams and wished she would die, the Charlotte Observer reported. She said that Carruth admitted to her that he was in front of Adams' car when the incident occurred.

Smith also shed light on a turbulent relationship between Adams and Carruth in the months leading up to the shooting.

She said Carruth confided in her about the pregnancy and that he was angry when Adams refused to have an abortion.

Smith also recounted for police a date she had with Carruth at Ericsson Stadium following a game. According to Smith, a pregnant Adams showed up unexpectedly, prompting an argument between the two women that grew so heated that stadium security intervened.

Prosecutors say the case all comes down to money. They charge that Carruth was driven to murder because he didn't want to pay Adams child support. In addition to the legal battle with Wright, the future of his injury-plagued career was uncertain as he entered the last year of a four-year contract with the Panthers. He was also experiencing other money problems stemming from investments in a nationwide pyramid scheme, in addition to being sued over a real estate deal.

Smith told investigators that Carruth was annoyed with the prospect of paying more child support and dealing with more court claims.

Carruth's attorneys, however, portray their client as a responsible father who had every intention of supporting the new baby. The defense points out that Carruth, in addition to his salary, was worth about $500,000 and that money was not an issue for him. They also say he was looking forward to the birth, accompanying Adams on doctor visits and Lamaze classes and paying more than $1,000 in expenses.

Temporary custody of Chancellor Lee Adams was granted to his maternal grandmother, Saundra Adams, who also successfully sought for Carruth to sell his house to pay child support while in jail.

Carruth, who submitted to a paternity test which proved him to be Chancellor's father and consented to the custody order, vowed to seek custody of the baby if acquitted. In August, a judge granted Carruth jailhouse visits with Chancellor.

Carruth's youngest visitor, however, is at the heart of Carruth's alleged murder plot.

Now it's up to a jury to decide whether Carruth will win freedom or be condemned to death.

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