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04/01/14 — Life in prison

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Life in prison

By John Joyce and Kenneth Fine
Published in News on April 1, 2014 1:46 PM

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News-Argus/SETH MABRY

Leonard Eugene Joyner, left, and defense attorney Charles Gurley listen as Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Arnold Jones tells the young man he will spend the rest of his life in prison, without the possibility of parole, for his role in the Sept. 9, 2012, murder and kidnapping of 16-year-old Kennedy McLaurin Jr.

News-Argus/SETH MABRY

Leonard Joyner blows a kiss to his family during the sentencing portion of his trial Monday.

Kennedy McLaurin's mother, Kim Best, was not moved to tears when she heard the verdict inside a Wayne County courtroom late Monday morning.

She didn't crack a smile or hug the relative sitting closest to her.

Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Arnold Jones said there were "no winners" when Leonard Eugene Joyner was found guilty of first-degree murder and first-degree kidnapping for his role in the Sept. 9, 2012, death of the Goldsboro teenager.

The reactions of those sitting on opposite ends of Courtroom No. 1 seemed to echo his sentiments.

Those who turned out day after day in pursuit of justice for a 16-year-old they say was taken from them far too soon remained stoic for the vast majority of the proceedings -- even when three men admitted to burning and burying him in a shallow grave and a forensic pathologist talked about removing a 9 mm bullet from the young man's aorta.

And some of the men and women who hoped the 12 Wayne County residents charged with determining Joyner's guilt or innocence would believe the young man's self-defense claim shed tears when Jones sentenced the 23-year-old to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

"I look over to my left and see a family that lost their son, cousin, relative on Sept. 9, 2012, and you've had to deal with that loss ever since then and will continue for the rest of your life," Jones said. "And I look over to my right and I see another family that for different circumstances ... now will lose a family member for the rest of your lives.

"This a sad day in the Wayne County Courthouse."

*

It started with a "drug deal gone bad" -- a teenager with a bag of "very potent marijuana" getting into a car on Bain Street with a group of men he didn't know.

From there, much of what unfolded -- and just how McLaurin ended up shot, beaten, burned and buried in a field off Carmack Road -- remains unclear.

Assistant District Attorney Matthew Delbridge told the jury during his closing arguments that there were "1,000 things about this case" they would never know.

But based on the evidence they saw -- and the testimony delivered by nearly two dozen witnesses who took the stand as part of the state's case -- the jurors determined that McLaurin was still alive when Joyner drove him to the site where he would ultimately be buried.

After the verdict was read, Delbridge gave much of the credit to the Goldsboro Police Department, particularly Det. Dwayne Bevell.

"I can't say enough about the job (he) did investigating this thing," Delbridge said. "The percentages were so low that this thing was ever going to get solved without him."

But Bevell wasn't ready to celebrate -- not exactly.

"It's definitely good to get a guilty verdict. It lets you know that what you're out here doing matters," he said. "There is no joy, but there is definitely relief and final closure for the family."

*

Joyner's road to conviction began back in 2012, when, several days after McLaurin went missing, the teenager's friend, Antonio "Mel" King, told Bevell that he had set up the drug deal -- that the buyer was Leonard Joyner, also known as "Levi."

But when the detective tracked Joyner down, the young man said he never went to Bain Street that day -- that he had sent "Charlie Brown" to pick up the drugs; that his friend, Josh Carter, could vouch for him that the two were at a tattoo parlor together when McLaurin went missing.

Carter, who testified during the trial in exchange for a pledge from police that they would not charge him in connection with the crime, later told Bevell that he lied about Joyner being with him that day -- that Joyner had confided in him that he was, in fact, there when the Goldsboro High School student was killed and later buried.

Joyner would ultimately take the stand and testify in his own defense.

He told the court that he lied to police about being in the car that day out of fear -- that McLaurin shot himself twice in the car and he was afraid lawmen would not believe it.

And he said that Curtis Ethridge, Kevin Smith and Jerome Butts -- the three men who have already entered guilty pleas for their admitted roles in the 16-year-old's kidnapping and murder and will be sentenced Wednesday morning at 9:30 a.m. -- were not telling the truth when they testified that Joyner was with them at the burial site and that McLaurin was still alive when they arrived there.

*

Ms. Best said she was "relieved" that the jury wasn't moved by Joyner's testimony -- that the 12 men and women responsible for providing justice for her son said, "Guilty."

And she acknowledged that McLaurin made a mistake the day he was killed -- that this tragedy might have been avoided if he wasn't selling drugs.

But dealing marijuana shouldn't cost a 16-year-old his life, Ms. Best said.

And she hopes that beyond the verdict, her family's plight will help others avoid a similar fate.

"Let this be a lesson to everyone," she said.