CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In a compromise verdict Friday, former Carolina Panther Rae Carruth was acquitted of first-degree murder but convicted on three lesser charges in the shooting of his pregnant girlfriend.
Carruth, who turned 27 today, faces a sentence of 10 to 26 years. However, he avoided being convicted of murder, for which he could have faced the death penalty.
The sentencing hearing begins Monday.
Carruth was found guilty of conspiracy to commit murder, shooting into an occupied vehicle and using an instrument to destroy an unborn child. He was expressionless as the verdicts were read.
Carruth and three other men were charged in the fatal shooting of Cherica Adams on Nov. 16, 1999, while driving down a Charlotte street. Prosecutors said Carruth planned the ambush because he did not want to pay child support.
Adams, 24, died a month later, but her child, Chancellor Lee Adams, lived and is in the custody of Adams' mother.
Van Brett Watkins, the admitted gunman, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in exchange for testimony and faces up to 50 years in prison. Michael Eugene Kennedy, 25, the driver of the car, and Stanley Drew Abraham, 20, a passenger, face the same charges as did Carruth.
David Rudolf, Carruth's attorney, said he will ask Judge Charles Lamm to vacate the guilty verdicts on Monday. However, legal experts said the motion is almost certain to be denied.
"In this state, a jury finding is sacred," said Paul Whitfield, a Charlotte attorney.
Juror Edward Karst said the panel did not want to give up without reaching a verdict.
"We couldn't get agreement for the first-degree," Karst told a reporter. "We didn't spend [3 1/2] days in there for nothing. We didn't want it to be a waste of everybody's time. I think we made the right decision."
One expert believes the jury might have concluded Carruth was guilty of conspiracy to murder the baby, and that Cherica Adams was murdered on impulse by Watkins. The defense contended Watkins shot Adams in a fit of rage because Carruth would not give him money to buy marijuana.
"This was not all or nothing," said James Coleman, a Duke law professor. "To find him guilty of murder, the jury would have decided he intended to kill her. To say he intended to kill someone else who did not die indicates conspiracy, but not murder."
The sentencing hearing could take several days because the defense can call character witnesses. After sentencing, Rudolf said he will appeal the convictions. If successful, Carruth would be retried on the three counts.
Carruth cannot be tried again for murder. He almost certainly will remain in jail until an appeal is heard, probably in eight to 12 months, because he fled to Tennessee in December 1999, after posting a $3-million bond.
"I know my client is not guilty, so I don't feel good about the verdict," Rudolf said. "I fully intend to keep fighting this. I haven't given up and Rae hasn't give up.
"When a jury comes back not guilty on murder, it is logically inconsistent that he shot into the occupied vehicle."
The jury reached its decision only one day after telling Lamm it was deadlocked on all four charges. The judge returned the seven-man, five-woman panel to deliberations and a compromise was reached. The jury deliberated a total of 19 hours over four days.
"This was a clear victory for the state," Whitfield said. "The shooter [Watkins] gets life imprisonment and the person who masterminded it [Carruth] was convicted of conspiracy. It was a compromise but clearly an appropriate thing for the jury to do."
Prosecutor Gentry Caudill, who is trying his final case before becoming a judge, did not wear the look of a winner.
"It was a very demanding case and a lot of folks worked very hard on it," Caudill said. "I am not taking any issue with the jury's verdict. It's the system of justice we have."
Neither family would comment on the verdicts. Adams' mother, Saundra Adams, and father, Jeff Moonie, reacted with tears and hugs in the courtroom. Carruth's family sat in stunned silence.
"[Adams' family] believes justice has been served," said Billy Ellerbee, attorney for Saundra Adams. "This has given the family a lot of closure, and they want to go on with their lives."
The NFL had no comment.
Carruth was the first active player in league history to be arrested on murder charges. Ten weeks later, in January 2000, Baltimore Raven linebacker Ray Lewis was charged with the murder of two men stabbed to death outside a nightclub in Atlanta.
Lewis eventually made a plea agreement with prosecutors, who dropped the murder counts in exchange for testimony. He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of obstruction of justice and was given 12 months' probation.
According to the NFL, player arrests have dropped from an all-time high of 38 in 1997 to 35 in '98 to 26 in '99. Convictions dropped during the same period from 24 to 14 to five. Figures for 2000 were unavailable.