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April 22, 2010

Another high-profile murder case ends in a plea deal to avoid the death penalty

As detailed in this AP article, one man "accused in the killing of a student body president at University of North Carolina's flagship campus pleaded guilty to federal crimes Monday, avoiding a death penalty case prosecutors were pursuing."  Here are more details:

Demario Atwater pleaded guilty to several charges, including carjacking resulting in death and kidnapping. Prosecutors agreed to drop their plan to pursue the death penalty and Atwater agreed that he will face a life sentence.

Eve Carson, 22, of Athens, Ga., was found shot to death in the middle of a Chapel Hill street in March 2008. She had been shot five times, including once in the head with a 12-gauge shotgun.

"While we deplore the evil and negligence that led to Eve's death, we agree with the U.S. Attorney's decision to accept the plea agreement," Carson's parents said in a statement Monday released by prosecutors. "We are very grateful for the dedication and hard work that have gone into the investigation and prosecution of this crime."

I hope (but do not really expect) that this plea deal and the similar plea deal that has recently been entered in the Chelsea King murder case (details here) might get more researchers and death penalty debaters to seriously analyze and assess the benefits and burdens of the death penalty as a plea bargaining tool. 

As regular readers know, I see the death penalty's role as a catalyst for resoving difficult murder cases via pleas to lesser sentences to be the least examined (and perhaps most important) justifications for capital punishment.  With the high-profile Carson and King cases both showcasing this issue, perhaps plea bargaining in the shadow of death will get more attention.  Gosh knows it should.

Some related posts:

April 22, 2010 at 11:03 AM | Permalink


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Doug, I think you are misreading the message here. The State had Atwater's photo on videotape at the ATM machine. It wasn't a hard case to prove or try. What I have been told was behind all this was that the parents of the victim did not want the State to pursue death since they knew that their daughter opposed the death penalty.

It was a terrible, horrendous case. A tragedy of unspeakable proportions. However, the lesson to be taken away is not related to the ability of prosecutors to use the threat of death to get plea bargains, but the fact that there are circumstances where even the people most entitled to demand that the state seek to kill the person who killed their daughter, do not support state sponsored killing.


Posted by: bruce cunningham | Apr 22, 2010 11:40:28 AM

Maybe I'm missing something, but why was this being prosecuted in federal court? According to the article, he still faces state charges. What were the feds doing in this case?

Posted by: arx | Apr 22, 2010 12:27:50 PM

"I hope (but do not really expect) that this plea deal and the similar plea deal that has recently been entered in the Chelsea King murder case (details here) might get more researchers and death penalty debaters to seriously analyze and assess the benefits and burdens of the death penalty as a plea bargaining tool."

A major obstacle to research is a dearth of raw data. There are two papers on plea bargaining that I know of: one by Ilyana Kuziemko and the other by yours truly. For multistate comparisons, both use the same 1988 dataset. There just isn't anything suitable any newer.

The folks who decide what statistics to gather appear to be obsessed with demographics. You can find mountains of data classifying perpetrators and victims by race, sex, etc., etc., etc. When it comes to the crime and sentence, though, they lump them in broad categories that obscure the variables of interest. For homicides, you can get lots of data on "murder and nonnegligent [i.e., voluntary] manslaughter," but if you want any finer detail than that, it is slim pickings. Sentence breakouts, at least for less than death, are also hard to come by.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Apr 22, 2010 1:12:58 PM


I haven't studied the case, so I'm not sure. But carjacking and use of a gun in a murder are both federal crimes; I'm guessing one or both of these were charged.

If your question isn't "what were the federal offenses here" but instead "why are traditional state law crimes like murder being federalized," that of course is a much bigger question.

Posted by: Def. Atty. | Apr 22, 2010 1:24:01 PM

Attorney: Perhaps we should legalize torture so that we have that as a bargaining chip too?

Posted by: George Anonymuncule Seldes | Apr 22, 2010 1:45:32 PM

I think thats its admirable of the parents to request this on behalf of their deceased daughter and even more so that the USAtty followed thru on it... Says a lot for both sides...As far as a federal case, the above mentioned reasons and Federal does have a ton more resources.....Sad case...There are no winners...Maybe the defendant, he gets to have somewhat of a life..

Posted by: Goodyr | Apr 22, 2010 2:18:20 PM

With regard to your curiosity about using the death penalty as a plea-bargaining tool, you might wish to look at similar sentencing provisions. For example, here in Michigan, use of a firearm to commit a felony is a separate felony, with a two-year, determinate sentence, to be served consecutively to, and before, the sentence for the underlying felony. It is often used as a bargaining tool, dismissed for a plea to the underlying charge. Habitual-offender penalties increase maximum prision terms, can increase minimum terms, and formerly prohibited good-time reductions, which have now disappeared completely. Dismissing the habitual-offender allegations is often done in exchange for a plea to the underlying charge. I do not see these practices as fundamentally different than giving up a death-penalty possibility, at least in Michigan, which does not have a death penalty.

Posted by: Greg Jones | Apr 22, 2010 2:59:41 PM

I think one factor in the DP as bargaining chip is that defense attorneys can get their client LWOP and feel that they've won.

Posted by: federalist | Apr 22, 2010 3:06:53 PM

Arx, when a death is a result of a federal crime, the government jump's in. Meaning if the carjacking was the factor in a death, he would be persued federally.

Posted by: N/A | Apr 22, 2010 3:27:53 PM

N/A -

Not always. There are thousands of carjackings that the federal government doesn't prosecute, even those that end in death. In fact, I would guess it's very unusual for the feds to pursue this kind of state-level crime. That's what makes me curious about what's going on in this case.

Posted by: arx | Apr 22, 2010 3:53:21 PM


Federal level's of prosecution's which involve death are numerous. Child Pornography can be also prosecuted by the state, according to the blog post here yesterday, even when it's a federal crime. The fed's don't have to prosecute everything. Federal crimes that involve death could involve, death of federal official's, thing's like when someone dies of a bankrobbing, or carjacking. But many are also prosecuted through state also.

Posted by: N/A | Apr 22, 2010 5:08:31 PM


Your comments are puzzling. Why is it admirable if parents of a deceased child request LWOP for the killer of their child? Do parents of a deceased child who want death for the murderer not receive your admiration? This is not a "sad" case, it is a repulsive case. Everything should be done to make sure that tragedies like this do not happen again. If as you say the only winner here is the defendant, then that is nothing to celebrate. I hope you are not.

Posted by: justice seeker | Apr 22, 2010 5:37:37 PM

I don't really understand why the views of victims and their families have come to play such a prominent role in prosecutorial decisions whether or not to seek the death penalty. As I see it, the purpose of the criminal justice system is to vindicate social ends, not individual ones. The state should do more to help crime victims – like providing meaningful victims' services – but I don't think victims should have such a prominent voice in the decision whether to prosecute and how much to punish.

Posted by: dm | Apr 23, 2010 8:10:26 AM

I'm not sure I see "the death penalty's role as a catalyst for resoving difficult murder cases" to be a very strong "justification[]for capital punishment."

What's wrong with a trial?

Posted by: Texas Lawyer | Apr 23, 2010 11:27:31 AM

What's wrong with a trial is your client is executed afterwards. I seem to remember seeing some statistics out of Cook County on the original proposition, but I can't be more specific.

Posted by: Tim Capps | Apr 23, 2010 5:23:21 PM

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