Murder charge dropped in 2008 death of Duke grad student

Feb. 22, 2013 @ 05:06 PM

Prosecutors on Friday dismissed a murder charge against one of two men accused of killing a Duke University graduate student in 2008.

Stephen Lavance Oates, 24, had been charged in the Jan. 18, 2008, shooting death of Abhijit Mahato.

Oates’ attorney, Mark Edwards, said prosecutors decided to drop the murder charge because they lacked evidence for a conviction.

“I think that over time, the case just fell apart,” Edwards said. “[The dismissal] is something that’s been in the works for some time.”

Edwards said that before Tracey Cline lost her job as district attorney, “I think it was her inclination to dismiss it at some point.” The case then went to Assistant District Attorney Jim Dornfried.

“I met with Jim a number of times,” Edwards said, “and I think he knew pretty quickly that they simply didn’t have enough evidence to convict.”

Friday’s dismissal was signed by Dornfried, who could not be reached for comment. But in his dismissal order, Dornfried said prosecutors tried repeatedly without success to find a key witness in the case.

“Without the testimony of said witness identifying the defendant as the assailant who had possession of and fired a weapon that through forensic testing has been linked to this murder and said subsequent robbery and assault, the state has no other available and admissible evidence to prove the defendant’s involvement in this murder,” Dornfried wrote.

Edwards said that Oates, who still faces two unrelated robbery charges, has been out of jail since May 2012 on an unsecured bond pending trial.

Mahato, 29, was found dead at the Anderson Apartments at 1600 Anderson St. Originally from Tatanagar, India, he was studying for an engineering doctorate degree on computational mechanics at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering. He was in his second year.

Edwards said that Dornfried told him that he had stayed in contact with Mahato’s family, “and there were things they wanted him to follow up on. And out of respect for them, he wanted to look into the matters they were concerned about. But ultimately, he saw that it just wasn’t a prosecutable case.”

The dismissal means that Laurence Alvin Lovette Jr. is the only person charged in Mahato’s death.

Lovette, 22, is serving time for the March 5, 2008, shooting death of Eve Carson, who was student body president at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.