Murder ‘mini-trial’ on calendar

Published 7:56 pm Saturday, June 15, 2013

 Arturo Lopez-Perez

Arturo Lopez-Perez


Special hearing will determine prison sentence

 The fate of the man who murdered Bath resident Len Willson III will be determined in a special sentencing hearing, the first to occur in the 2nd Judicial District of North Carolina.

Earlier this year, Arturo Lopez-Perez pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and other charges related to the death of Willson. Prior to last year, the plea and the state’s felony murder rule would have earned Lopez an automatic sentence of life in prison without parole. However, state law changed shortly after a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision found the automatic sentence, when applied to persons under the age of 18 at the time the crime was committed, to be “cruel and unusual punishment,” a violation of Eighth Amendment rights. Lopez was 16 at the time of Willson’s murder.

It’s not the first such sentencing hearing in North Carolina. Earlier this month, the state revisited the 2011 sentence of Laurence Alvin Lovette Jr., one of two men convicted in the 2008 shooting death of University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill student body president Eve Carson. A Superior Court judge considered the mitigating circumstances presented in Lovette’s defense, but at the conclusion of the hearing, Lovette was sentenced again to life without the possibility of parole.

Lopez’s hearing is set for July 2 with Superior Court Judge Alma Hinton presiding. Hinton will be called upon to consider many factors — age at the time of the offense, intellectual capacity, ability to appreciate the risks and consequences of the crime, prior record, the likelihood the defendant will benefit from rehabilitation in confinement and any other mitigating factor or circumstance — and decide Lopez’s sentence: spending the rest of his natural life in prison or life (25 years) with the possibility of parole.

Second Judicial District Attorney Seth Edwards describes Lopez’s sentencing hearing as a kind of “mini-trial.”

“This will be the first such procedure in this judicial district since the law was changed last year,” Edwards said.

Edwards presented a summary of the case when Lopez made his plea arrangement with the state in February: it is unknown whether Lopez set out with the intention of murdering Willson on the night of Oct. 5, 2010, but Willson was home when Lopez and Martel Deval Weston broke into his house with the intention of robbing him. A third man, Domonic Kidean Farrow, remained in the car, parked a block away, while Weston robbed the house and Lopez beat Willson with first a pitchfork, then a shovel.
During the state’s summary, Edwards said the medical examiner’s ruling on cause of death was blunt trauma to the head, which made up only a fraction of Willson’s injuries: 27 clusters of contusions over the upper body, hands and wrists; multiple fractures to the skull; broken hyoid bone; fractured right arm; and bruising to the brain.

In March 2012, Weston and Farrow pleaded guilty to lesser crimes and agreed to testify against Lopez. It is unclear whether either man will testify in the upcoming hearing.

“In most cases, in a sentencing hearing, you really don’t have witnesses sworn, but I’ll probably call one of the investigators and the medical examiner,” Edwards said. “I expect some of Len Willson’s family members — at least one of them — would like to convey their wishes to the judge as to what she should do.”

Edwards said this type of sentencing hearing may be rare right now, but that is likely change: over 90 inmates in North Carolina are serving mandatory life without parole sentences for crimes they committed before they turned 18.