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Carruth: A Confounding Compromise

Catholic pilgrims carry a large cross in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, traditionally believed to be the site of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus Christ, during the Good Friday procession and the Way of the Cross, in Jerusalem's Old City, Friday, April 6, 2007. Christian pilgrims from around the world filled the narrow cobblestone streets of Jerusalem's Old City on Good Friday.
AP Photo/Kevin Frayer
By acquitting Rae Carruth of first-degree murder but convicting him of the other three lesser charges he faced, the former football player's North Carolina jury came back with a verdict which makes some common sense, even if it may be legally inconsistent.

Clearly a compromise among a group of folks who as late as Thursday had declared that they were deadlocked, the verdict is likely to confound the judge, the prosecutors, and the defense attorneys who now have to figure out what to make of it and what to do about Carruth. Indeed, about the only certainty to come from Friday's news, in fact, is that Carruth will not face the death penalty for his role in this crime.

The acquittal verdict is sensible if you buy into the theory that the jury believed that Carruth had something to do with the death of his pregnant girlfriend, Cherica Adams, without actually being the triggerman — the murderer, if you will.

That's one way to explain why the jurors were willing to convict Carruth of conspiracy to commit murder, shooting into an occupied car, and using an instrument to destroy an unborn child, even while they were willing to absolve him of the only crime that could have sent him to his death.

The verdict may also make sense if you buy into another theory that suggests that Carruth did not intend to kill Adams, but only the unborn child inside her, a child who lived through the assault.

Under this theory, the jurors may have determined that Carruth did not commit the precise felony necessary under the state's felony-murder rule because the "conspiracy" of which he was convicted was not a conspiracy to kill the person actually murdered. The "felony", in other words, didn't match the "murder" to comply with the felony-murder rule.

Now, those two theories give this particular jury a lot of credit. And sometimes jurors deserve a lot of credit for seeing the forest for the trees and sometimes they don't.

Carruth's jurors weren't talking Friday when they left the courtroom and they may never talk about what went on during their 20 hours-worth of deliberations. So if you don't feel like giving the jury much credit here, try the following theory on for size. It suggests that the verdicts Friday are entirely inconsistent and illogical.

Under this theory, the jury reached its contradictory verdicts simply because it wanted to spare Carruth's life without letting him off the hook entirely, regardless of whether those verdicts were legally consistent. This is called, in various forms, jury nullification and it may or may not have happened here.

Perhaps jurors were swayed to some sympathy for Carruth because he had no meaningful prior criminal record. Perhaps they didn't like the prosecution's star witness, Van Brett Watkins, an evil-sounding blustery fellow who sounded less than candid when he told the court how Carruth had paid him to kill Adams, which he said he gleefully did.

Perhaps the juors didn't want to give Carruth a ticket to a death penalty because they knew or sensed that Watkins, Adams' literal killer, had pleaded guilty only to second-degree murder.

And why will some argue that the verdicts are inconsistent? Well, typically, convicting someone like Carruth of an underlying felony — conspiracy to commit murder, for example — means that the jury must and will convict the person of first-degree murder under the felony-murder rule.

And it normally doesn't matter much about what the defendant's "intent" is with regard to the murder. So theoretically, the jury should have convicted Carruth on the murder charge once it decided that it was willing to convict him of the lesser charges.

Even though Carruth cannot get the death penalty, the crimes for which he was convicted could land him in prison for dozens of years. And the judge, who may not agree with the jurors' verdict, could opt for a lengthy sentence.

So, since neither side is particularly happy with the jury's mixed result here, both sides are likely to appeal the case. And that means that we are likely to be talking about Rae Carruth for many years to come.

That said, your guess is as good as mine about what went on in that jury room — and on what is likely to happen next.