The officers’ deaths shocked the city and prompted thousands to line the streets for their funeral processions. The attack felt eerily similar to the 1993 slayings of two other Charlotte officers, who also were killed by one assailant as police say happened at Timber Ridge.
Montgomery’s trial is predicted to run for weeks – beginning with the painstaking selection of a jury. Nearly 2,000 Mecklenburg residents have been summoned to submit to scrutiny as possible jurors. Twelve will be chosen, plus several alternates, after what can become personal, even intrusive questioning about their backgrounds, biases and beliefs.
The trial promises to be emotional in a county that rarely seeks or imposes the death penalty – and that also widely respects its police officers.
“The killing of a police officer strikes at the very heart of a civilized society…” says Charlotte lawyer and death penalty expert Jim Cooney. “(It’s) one of the most aggravated murders we have, next to the killing of a child.”
The trial comes at a time when North Carolina is wrestling with questions about what role racial bias plays in sentencing.
Montgomery, 28, is black; the slain officers white. Studies show someone who kills a white person is nearly three times more likely to get the death penalty than someone who kills an African-American.
Such trends recently prompted N.C. lawmakers to pass the Racial Justice Act, which allows death row inmates and defendants in death penalty cases to challenge their prosecution on grounds of bias. For the first time, judges can now consider statistics and anecdotal trends of racial disparities in death sentences to change a death sentence to life.
“The judge is going to have to give the defense counsel a great deal of latitude to explore the issue of race with the jurors,” says Bob Hurley, the state’s capital defender, who once represented a black man ultimately convicted – but not given death – for killing a white police officer.
“They’ll certainly ask the typical questions about the life experiences, but also their experiences dealing with people of another race, dealing with other African-Americans.”
Ultimately, local lawyers agree, the trial will rest on the strength of the evidence against Montgomery.
Neither prosecutors nor Montgomery’s attorneys would discuss the case.
It’s unclear if prosecutors can produce a witness who saw Montgomery pull the trigger.
At the time of the killings, one witness told the Observer that she saw Montgomery talking to the officers before the shooting. She and another witness also said then they saw him running from the scene with a gun in his hand.
On Friday, Montgomery’s attorneys filed a motion alleging misconduct by an investigator in the case. It alleges a detective withheld, plagiarized and discarded important notes from the investigation, which the attorneys said would violate evidence discovery rules. Partial notes the attorneys did receive suggest another man who looked like Montgomery was seen near the site of the shootings, the motion says.
Another defense motion suggests that prosecutors have obtained Montgomery’s DNA from a .32-caliber gun believed to be the murder weapon. But defense attorneys are challenging that, saying police didn’t leave enough DNA evidence for them to conduct their own analysis.
The motion also raises questions about the soundness of using test results from Charlotte’s police lab in a case that involves a police shooting.
If Montgomery is proven guilty, experts say, his life may depend on his ability to connect with the jury. That may not be easy for Montgomery, who defense attorneys have said suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and has been little help in preparing his trial defense.
Montgomery had not uttered a word about the crimes, his attorneys said in court this spring. They have argued unsuccessfully he is incompetent to stand trial.
In deciding punishment, a jury must weigh the aggravating factors of a murder, such as the defendant’s criminal record, with mitigating factors, such as his intelligence, any mental problems and life experiences.
Says lawyer Cooney: “As an attorney, you have to operate on the assumption that the killer of a police officer will get the death penalty unless there is an extraordinary and compelling reason not to impose it.”
A Fatal Night
The murder charges were the first felonies leveled against Demeatrius Antonio Montgomery.
A South Mecklenburg High School dropout, Montgomery had been convicted three times for assault – at least once for assaulting a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer. He’d also been convicted three times for resisting an officer.
He’d done jail time, but had never gone to prison.
On Saturday, March 31, 2007, he had been drinking brandy, smoking Newports and listening to music – possibly a Pastor Troy song called “Murda Man,” court documents say. He visited a relative at Timber Ridge.
About 10:30 p.m., Clark and Shelton were sent to a disturbance call at the complex.
Around 11:20, a woman called 911 and reported two officers were down. She ran across the parking lot to help the officers, police said later.
When firefighters arrived, they found both officers shot in the back of the head, documents say. Their guns were still in their holsters.
Experts said the autopsy suggests the officers were shot at close range – within three feet of the gun. A police account said the officers had struggled with someone.
Clark died at 12:14 a.m. on April 1, Shelton at 4:06.
Montgomery, then 25, was arrested about 40 minutes after the shooting at The Plaza and McBride Street, about a mile from Timber Ridge.
In the hours after the shooting, police swarmed the apartment complex, knocking on doors, questioning residents, searching for evidence.
Over the next several days, police took DNA and urine samples from Montgomery, and went to his relative’s Timber Ridge apartment to search for evidence related to a .32-caliber gun, court documents say.
Montgomery’s trial has been delayed, as his attorney’s have argued their client is mentally incompetent. But after testing and testimony from psychiatrists, a judge declared Montgomery competent.
His attorneys have cited the Racial Justice Act, trying to rule out a death penalty trial for Montgomery. But they withdrew the request, which could be revived if Montgomery is convicted.
The last person convicted of killing a police officer in Charlotte was ordered to die for his crime. But Alden Harden, citing racial bias, is appealing his sentence for the 1993 shooting deaths of Officers John Burnette and Andy Nobles.
Court staff expect a throng of spectators for Montgomery’s trial.
Police officers will be there, though the local police union is encouraging uniformed officers not to show up en masse.
“We don’t want to appear that we’re pressuring the jury,” says Todd Walther, president of the Fraternal Order of Police. “We want a fair trail for both sides.”
The families of officers Shelton and Clark are also expected at the trial. They have generally declined in-depth interviews. Montgomery’s relatives may also attend. He has two children.
“A capital trial is very intense to begin with, because it involves someone’s life…,” says Durham lawyer Hurley. “When you add… the fact that the two victims are police officers, it’s hard to believe that the level of intensity can be increased, but it can.”
He recalls the courtroom during the 1998 trial of his client who’d killed a police officer: “The tension was so strong and omnipresent. There’s a lot of pressure on all the participants. They all feel some pressure from different segments of the community to deliver what they feel is an appropriate verdict.” Staff Writer Gary L. Wright contributed.
Cleve R. Wootson Jr.: 704-358-5046