Durham County

Locked up for 3 years, teen set free hours before murder trial

Murder charges dismissed for 19-year-old after three years in jail

Watch as Shawn Butler is released from the Durham County jail on Tuesday after his first-degree murder charge was dismissed just before attorneys finished seating a jury. A court filing stated that "newly discovered information creates a reasonabl
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Watch as Shawn Butler is released from the Durham County jail on Tuesday after his first-degree murder charge was dismissed just before attorneys finished seating a jury. A court filing stated that "newly discovered information creates a reasonabl

Daphine Davis Moseley sat quietly on a hard, metal chair in the lobby of Durham County jail, fiddling with her phone and drinking from a bottle of Sprite.

Just hours earlier, Moseley, 47, of Durham had been sitting in a courtroom watching jury selection for the trial of her son Shawn Leroy Butler, who had been in jail since he was 16.

Butler turned 17, 18, and 19 wearing an orange jumpsuit and sleeping in a cell. He was charged with killing 18-year-old Rakwon Smith in 2014. If convicted, Butler faced a potential sentence of life in prison without parole.

At 1 p.m. Tuesday jury selection paused for lunch. Attorneys had picked 11 jurors. They needed one more and two alternates.

When court resumed, however, Butler’s charges – murder, six counts of shooting into an occupied dwelling, and three counts of shooting into an occupied dwelling inflicting serious bodily injury – were dismissed.

Assistant District Attorney Jim Dornfried, who requested the dismissal, said new evidence raises doubts about Butler’s guilt. He said he is limited in what he can say about the ongoing investigation.

Alex Charns, Butler’s court-appointed attorney, said the dismissal is one of several mysteries in the case involving a teenager with an intellectual disability who was hours away from being tried for murder that Butler said he didn’t do.

“It’s a dangerous, scary, frightening thing that could have happened here,” Charns said. “But it is also frightening, horrific that a 16-year-old stayed in prison for three years when he was innocent.”

Aug. 9, 2014 shooting

Police responded to a shooting around 9:45 p.m., Aug. 9, 2014, in the 600 block of Lee Street.

They found Smith inside his home on the rainy Saturday night, shot in the head and hip, and took him to the hospital.

That Monday, police said Smith had died.

Butler was arrested Aug. 27, 2014. He was living in a Raleigh group home on a juvenile court order shielded from the public due to his age at the time.

Court documents indicate Raleigh psychologist Cindy Cottle, an expected expert witness in Butler’s trial, concluded his “overall level of functioning was in the extremely low range.” Butler’s IQ score was 67, according to court documents. The average IQ score is around 100.

Durham Public Schools referred Butler for exceptional children services for a mild “intellectual disability” in third grade, court records state.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, people with mild intellectual disability may exhibit gullibility and lack of awareness of risk that may result in exploitation by others, possible victimization, fraud, unintentional criminal involvement and false confession, Charns said.

Court documents indicate Raleigh psychologist Cindy Cottle, an expected expert witness in Butler’s trial, concluded his “overall level of functioning was in the extremely low range.”

Butler’s disability played a part in the process, Charns said.

It’s harder for Butler to communicate, to understand what people are saying and to advocate for himself, Charns said.

Still, the case unraveled, Charns said, because his client maintained his innocence and wanted a trial.

The weekend of the killing

On Friday, Aug. 8, 2014, the day before Smith was shot, Butler left the Raleigh group home for a weekend visit home to Durham. He returned that Sunday.

A group home employee later contacted the Durham Police Department with information about the shooting. Detective Anne Cristaldi responded and recorded an Aug. 13, 2014, telephone conversation with the employee. The Herald-Sun obtained a copy of the recorded conversation, which was part of the court file.

The Herald-Sun could not reach the employee of the group home, which is no longer in business.

The employee told Cristaldi he had dropped Butler at his home in Durham around 4:30 p.m. Friday. When the employee came to work the following Monday, Butler kept asking to speak with him in private, the employee told Cristaldi.

At one point, Butler began to ask whether there was a warrant for his arrest, and if the employee could call Butler’s probation officer to find out, the employee told the detective.

The conversation

Here is what the employee told the detective, according to the recording of their conversation.

Butler said he had an issue with a man who was a co-defendant in one of the recent charges against him The man told police on him, and that landed him in the group home.

The day of the shooting, Butler said he ran into this man’s cousin, who was named Rakwon.

“He walked up to him and said ‘Hey man, when I see your cousin I am going to get him. Let your cousin know I have got something for him or something along those lines,” the employee said Butler told him. “Something about I am going to get your cousin.”

“Then he told me at that point, Rakwon responded, ‘you are going to do what to my cousin’ and then pulled out a firearm,’” the employee said Butler said.

Butler said he was unarmed and left as the man started shooting at him, the employee told the detective.

Butler then met up with one of his brothers and a friend. That evening, the three drove by the area and saw Rakwon and two other men sitting on the steps near the apartment. Butler said he started shooting at Rakwon because he had shot at him earlier, the employee told the detective, according to the recording.

Butler told some of his peers that he had shot someone over the weekend, the employee said.

The employee then said he had another conversation with Butler and a second group-home worker during which Butler conveyed a similar but less detailed account.

Charns said he planned to argue in court that the conversations between Butler and the two employees never happened.

The employees didn’t provide a written statement to police, Charns said. They didn’t take any written notes about their conversation with Butler. Statements they attributed to Butler were too complex for and inconsistent with how Butler talks.

And the first employee didn’t remember the conversation when an investigator from the defense team called him in March 2016, Charns said.

“I mean there are many mysteries, and I don’t know why someone would do that,” Charns said.

Butler was arrested about two weeks after the detective’s telephone conversation with the employee. He was held on $2 million bail, which over time fell to $500,000 in April.


Three witnesses to the Aug. 9, 2014, shooting came forward, Charns said.

▪ A person across the street, who didn’t see anything.

▪ Smith’s mother, who was in the house and said she saw Smith go to door.

▪ And a neighbor who described seeing a shiny bald, African-American man wearing dark clothes come up to the door, step back and shoot “1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3,” Charns said.

Butler has never been bald, Charns said.

In a Sept. 15 court filing and in court Monday, Charns asked the state to produce additional information relating to a CrimeStoppers tip indicating another man had been bragging about killing Smith. That man is currently in prison on a parole violation, Charns said.

Dornfried, the assistant district attorney, said in court that the caller was anonymous and the state hadn’t received additional information.

In the court filing, the tip indicates that the person had “been bragging about shooting and killing Rakwon. They said Butler is innocent. … They described (the man) as being 23 years old, 5’11, 145-170 lbs, bald with tattoos,” according to the filing that describes an email sent to Cristaldi on May 23, 2017.

Back in court

On Monday morning, Dornfried and Charns started to select a jury.

That process continued Tuesday. Butler sat quietly next to Charns wearing a light-colored suit. His family sat behind him.

During the lunch hour, Dornfried learned someone else had told a third party that wasn’t law enforcement they had killed Smith, he said.

Around 2:20 p.m., with the lunch break ending, Dornfried approached Charns in the hall and told him he planned to dismiss the case.

Court resumed about 10 minutes later. Dornfried moved for all the charges to be dismissed.

“Newly discovered information creates a reasonable doubt as to the defendant being the perpetrator of the offenses,” the court file states.

In an interview, Dornfried said he couldn’t make additional information public.

The Police Department also declined to comment.

“I am sorry but no one is available to speak about this case because it is still ongoing,” police spokeswoman Kammie Michael said in an email.

Newly discovered information creates a reasonable doubt as to the defendant being the perpetrator of the offenses.

From the court file

The public has a right to know what happened, Charns said.

“It may not be at this moment, but in a reasonable amount of time,” he said.

Public money was used to pay for more than 175 hours of his services, along with a number of experts who were paid to work on the case.

Charns also pointed out that the bond system kept a poor kid in jail for three years. Someone from a family with means would have been able to go home.

“Is that the criminal justice system we want for us for our kids?” he said.

Waiting for Butler

Moseley, Butler’s mother, waited Wednesday evening with one of Butler’s brothers, Sedrick Butler, 27, and his cousins, Isaiah Kersey, 18, and Anthony Henderson, 18, all of Durham.

Moseley didn’t have any special plans when they get home.

“He’s just happy he is free,” his mother said.

Sedrick Butler said he knew his brother didn’t do it. He is upset with the system and the people who kept him in jail for three years.

“If you were so-called looking into it like you were supposed to, how did it just get dismissed (after) three years?” Sedrick Butler said.

Around 5:20 p.m., Shawn Butler walked out of jail wearing a wrinkled black shirt and pants that he had walked in wearing more than three years ago.

That’s three years of wrinkles, his cousin said.

Butler walked out the front door into the evening sunshine smiling. He threw his arm up in a big wave to those who remained in the upper floors of the pale jail.

“What’s up, man, what’s up,” he said. “It feels good.”

His responses to a reporter were short.

What have you missed most? “Family.”

What do you want to do now? “Just chill.”

What was it like living in jail for three years? “Crazy”

Do you have any concerns about the way your case was handled? He shook his head no.

What did you think when the charges were dismissed? “I ready to go.”

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges