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03/20/14 — Witness tells court: It was 'just drug deal'

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Witness tells court: It was 'just drug deal'

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on March 20, 2014 1:46 PM

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News-Argus/CASEY MOZINGO

Kennedy McLaurin's mother, Kim Best, testifies Wednesday.

It was supposed to be a drug deal -- a 16-year-old exchanging a bag of marijuana for a stack of money.

But when Kennedy McLaurin Jr. stepped out of Antonio King's car and walked away to make the transaction, his friend -- his "brother" -- never saw him again.

King told a Wayne County jury that he set up the deal between McLaurin and Leonard Eugene Joyner and denied that he, in reality, sent his friend to rob the man who is on trial for first-degree murder in connection with the teenager's death.

"Did you know he was going to try to rob these guys?" defense attorney Charles Gurley asked.

"Nah," King replied. "That wasn't the plan."

Assistant District Attorney Matthew Delbridge asked King to detail Sept. 9, 2012, as he remembered it -- how Joyner called him in an attempt to purchase drugs; how he picked McLaurin up and drove him close to the meeting place; how when, after several minutes, his friend did not return and the car he slid into to make the deal speeded off.

But during cross-examination, Gurley asked if it was not, in fact, a gang initiation gone bad.

He asked King what "roll call" meant and how long he had been a member of "Folk."

He asked if he felt responsible for sending McLaurin "to do an armed robbery."

King denied being a member of a gang.

And he denied, on more than one occasion, that McLaurin was acting to try to get into one.

"I never told nobody to rob nobody," he said. "It was a drug deal."

King was not the only person close to McLaurin who took the stand Wednesday.

The young man's mother, Kim Best, delivered an emotional testimony moments after King was excused.

She told the court that she often told her son that she didn't approve of the people he was hanging around with -- but that she saw him every day and told him how much he was loved.

Unlike King, she did not see the teenager the day he disappeared.

But she remembers their last encounter.

It was Sept. 8, 2012.

"When he was coming through the neighborhood, he stopped by," Ms. Best said. "He gave me a hug and told me he loved me."

The following night, when word had spread that McLaurin had not been seen since the afternoon, she called his cell phone for hours on end.

He never answered -- and never would again.

The following testimony was also delivered Wednesday:

State witness No. 1: Goldsboro resident Tonya Prior -- The woman who called 911 after a shot rang out on Bain Street, Ms. Prior told the court that she was at home with her mother and two children the afternoon of Sept. 9, 2012, when she heard a gunshot outside. She said she walked to the door and looked outside and saw a parked car with one of its doors open across the street. Moments later, she heard someone yell at her to 'Call 911," so she did just that. While she was on the stand, Assistant District Attorney Matthew Delbridge played the 911 call. "I need an ambulance," Ms. Prior could be heard saying. "Someone got shot?" the operator then asked. "Yes," Ms. Prior responded. She then told the operator that she had "no idea" who the people in the car were and that they "took off." During cross-examination, defense attorney Charles Gurley asked a few questions about the day of the shooting -- where the car was in relation to her home and whether she could "exactly" see everything that unfolded. "I don't know if they was fighting or what," Ms. Prior said.

State witness No. 2: Former Goldsboro resident Antonio "Mel" King -- King told the court that he received a call the day McLaurin died from the defendant, Leonard Joyner, who wanted to know "where to find some marijuana." King said he knew that he McLaurin, who he characterized as a close friend, had some so he arranged a drug deal between the two parties. He and a man named "Diamond" were in his car with McLaurin waiting for the buyer to arrive and, at one point, McLaurin got out of the car and walked out of sight to make the transaction. But a few minutes later, after listening to a song on the radio, King realized that McLaurin had left his cellphone in the car -- prompting "Diamond" to pursue him on foot while King did so in the car. Moments later, King said he heard "Diamond" screaming that something was happening in the buyer's car and that the driver had sped off in the direction of Royall Avenue. Later that day, King said he called Joyner several times to find out where McLaurin was and the defendant replied that he was last seen with "Charlie Brown." He became concerned once Joyner stopped answering his phone calls because McLaurin was a close friend. "We called each other 'brothers,'" he said. During cross-examination, defense attorney Charles Gurley asked King what "roll call" meant and how he "got into Folk." King denied being a member of that gang and then denied that he orchestrated an attempted robbery of Joyner by McLaurin as part of a gang initiation. "Did you know he was going to try to rob these guys?" Gurley asked. "Nah," King replied. "That wasn't the plan. I never told nobody to rob nobody. It was a drug deal."

State witness No. 3: Kim Best, McLaurin's mother -- Ms. Best told the court that she was McLaurin's birth mother and described the family when asked how many brothers and sisters the young man had. She testified that in 2012, McLaurin was living with his father, but said she still saw her son every day. The last time she saw him was the day before he disappeared. "When he was coming through the neighborhood, he stopped by," she said. "He gave me a hug and told me he loved me." Ms. Best added that she often told her son that she didn't approve of the crowd he was hanging out with. The day he disappeared, nobody had heard from him and by "9 or 10 o'clock," she started to worry. "I kept calling my son's cellphone," Ms. Best said. "No answer." After two or three hours of unanswered phone calls, she heard that "somebody snatched him." The next day, somebody answered the young man's cellphone and told Ms. Best where she could find it. She got it, she testified, from Diamond Sampson. A few days later, there had still been no word from Kennedy and the Goldsboro Police Department had gotten involved, Ms. Best said. Then, "a little over a week" later, she turned over her son's toothbrush to the GPD for use in DNA testing. Ms. Best took a long pause after Assistant District Attorney Matthew Delbridge asked her how she learned that her son's body had been discovered. Det. Dwayne Bevell came to her home to deliver the news, she replied. Defense attorney Charles Gurley chose to not cross-examine Ms. Best.

State witness No. 4: Goldsboro Police Department crime scene specialist Sgt. Michael Sweet -- Sweet told the court that he was asked by Det. Dwayne Bevell to get involved in the McLaurin case, as he believed this particular missing-persons investigation could, in reality, be a homicide. He testified that he was present when the GPD searched the home of suspect Jerome Butts and when officers located the car McLaurin allegedly died in. He said the interior of the car appeared to have been "stripped out" and that the exterior looked to have been altered, too. He was also on scene when investigators went over the location they initially believed McLaurin's remains were buried at -- a field out in the county. There, he said they found a cigar wrapper and a 9 mm cartridge, but no body. He then responded to what he called the "second burial site" -- a location some 300 yards away from the field. He and another officer used a shovel and sifter to try to find traces of McLaurin's remains and as they dug, they were exposed to a "very foul smell" permeating from the ground -- one that got stronger the deeper they dug. Ultimately, he told the court, they found the teen's remains. "(The body) was in bad decay at that time," Sweet said. During cross-examination, defense attorney Charles Gurley asked how far the "grave site" was from the GPD headquarters and Sweet said roughly 20 miles. Then, the officer described the difference between the two burial sites. "The first grave site ... was an open area," he said. "The second was inside a wooded area." Gurley then asked if anyone checked to see who the car in question was registered to. Sweet said he did not know.

State witness No. 5: Goldsboro Police Department crime scene specialist Cpl. Steven Powers -- Like Sweet, Powers told the court that he was present at the many crime scenes involved in the case -- Butts' residence, the property they found the car on and both burial sites. At Assistant Matthew Delbridge's request, he described several photographs he took at the crime scenes and detailed his involvement in the investigation. Among the photos he discussed were shots of the interior and exterior of the vehicle, one of the car "obscured from view" behind a trailer on Deluxe Drive, one of the insurance card bearing Butts' name police found in the car and a "burn pile" discovered close to the vehicle. "We sifted through the burn pile and actually collected items," Powers said. Among the items recovered from the ashes were a metal clip, a piece of plastic, speaker wire, insulation and a glove. Powers also identified other items he photographed at that particular scene -- speakers, a full car seat, seat frames and the "remains" of a hood ornament. Gurley, knowing that Powers would be taking the stand for the state a second time, declined to cross-examine him until after his second trip to the witness stand.

State witness No. 6: DNA analyst Sharon Hinton -- Ms. Hinton told the court that she became involved in the McLaurin case in October 2012 after Goldsboro lawmen "found a body" that needed to be identified. When her office was contacted to assist, she was given a toothbrush that belonged to McLaurin, tissue samples and teeth and was asked to conduct DNA analysis on them. "From what I understood, they assumed the tissues and bone samples came from the same person," Ms. Hinton said. She testified that she extracted DNA from each of the items she was given and was able to create a DNA profile from each. The DNA from McLaurin's toothbrush, she said, matched one of the teeth. During cross-examination, defense attorney Charles Gurley asked if it was true that there is only a one-percent difference between his DNA and everybody else's. He also questioned the state's practice's and why they use certain statistics.

State witness No. 7: Forensic scientist Jessica Courdriet -- After being accepted, by Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Arnold Jones, as an expert witness, Ms. Courdriet told the court that she received three pieces of evidence associated with the McLaurin case -- a 9 mm cartridge case and two 9 mm bullets. She testified that when she compared the three items, she determined it was "possible" that they were connected. Assistant District Attorney Matthew Delbridge then asked her to look at a cartridge and determine whether it came from the same kind of gun that fired the bullets and produced the cartridge case. "They are both 9 mm," she said. During cross-examination, defense attorney Charles Gurley asked how many bullets came in a box and how many bullets were produced, by particular manufacturers, in a month. Ms. Courdriet said that bullets are mass-produced, but that gun barrels contain unique details that can be seen under a microscope -- enabling people like her to tell which bullets have been fired by which guns. Gurley pressed her repeatedly on this answer, but she never wavered. "The individual detail in each barrel is different," she said.

State witness No. 8: North Carolina State Crime Laboratory official Michelle Hannon -- Ms. Hannon told the court that she generated the DNA report for the McLaurin case and reviewed the work of the analysts who were involved in the evidence. She testified that she developed DNA profiles for Leonard Joyner and the three other suspects in the McLaurin case and was charged with attempting to extract DNA profiles from 35 items -- a glove, a pair of socks, a piece of black tape, a burnt T-shirt, a bullet, a cigar wrapper, a lighter, two cigarettes and other things. Of those 35 items, she was only able to create a DNA profile from a cigarette butt. It matched Jerome Butts, she said. But she also, in response to a question from Assistant District Attorney Matthew Delbridge, said that there are many reasons why DNA might not be found on items recovered from crime scenes. During cross-examination, defense attorney Charles Gurley asked Ms. Hannon to confirm that a bullet sitting out in a field for 12 days could be void of DNA evidence. She agreed.

State witness No. 9: North Carolina State Crime Laboratory arson expert Amy Brewer -- After being accepted, by Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Arnold Jones, as an expert, Ms. Brewer told the court that she received five pieces of evidence associated with the McLaurin case to analyze -- pieces of clothing and debris -- and performed several tests to determine whether or not an "accelerator" was present. After her testing, she concluded that "residual gasoline" existed on the items pulled from "the burial pit." During cross-examination, defense attorney Charles Gurley asked Ms. Brewer what tests she used. She said she did visual, odor and vapor testing to reach her conclusion.