Let the jury decide, says judge who released accused murderer from jail

Elijah Everett, left, is one of three people charged with killing Usha Chatman, right, on Christmas Eve 2016. Everett was one of five people who were released from jail in January on an unsecured bond after a hearing before Durham County Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson.
Elijah Everett, left, is one of three people charged with killing Usha Chatman, right, on Christmas Eve 2016. Everett was one of five people who were released from jail in January on an unsecured bond after a hearing before Durham County Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson.

A prosecutor says Elijah Everett bought toboggans and gloves preparing to retaliate after his friend was shot to death.

Defense Attorney Allyn Sharp says all the prosecutor has is a video of a person buying a hat at a Dollar General store in December.

On Christmas Eve 2016 two people were shot and killed.

Montez Brandon, 25, was fatally shot walking down the sidewalk on the 3000 block of Wedgedale Avenue.

Five hours later, Usha Chatman, 22, was shot to death in a car on the 2800 block of Rochelle Street.

The shootings were part of an ongoing gang dispute that stretches back to 2012, leaving a trail of bodies and violent-crime charges, Assistant District Attorney Stormy Ellis said.

Montez Brandon was killed as his brother Devante Brandon and several of his friends, including Hakeem Hubbard, stood nearby, Ellis said.

Everett, 21, Hubbard and Mychal Mercer were charged in Chatman’s death, the prosecution argued. But each man’s case is unique.

In the last two weeks of January, a Durham judge let Everett and four other men accused of murder out of jail.

The men were released after hearings before Chief Resident Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson, who said he based his decision on evidence in weak cases. An unsecured bond requires a signature promising to pay an amount of money if the defendant fails to return to court.

The bond hearings highlight the stakes as judges balance defendants’ presumption of innocence with the risks that the suspects they release will commit a violent crime or flee.

The hearings also reveal challenges prosecutors face when witness testimony is key evidence in fatal street crimes, as well as concerns defense attorneys have about prosecutors holding onto weak cases.

Hubbard was on probation and wearing a GPS monitoring bracelet. Investigators can track his movements on the day of the shooting by the minute, which they used to build their case. He is being held on a $1 million secured bail.

Mercer, who also had a bond hearing before Hudson in January, is being held on a $550,000 secured bail.

Usha Chatman Courtesy of Chatman’s family

Charges against Everett: First-degree murder.

Days in jail: 267

Previous convictions: Possession of stolen goods, possession of a schedule VI drug, possession of a weapon on campus, breaking and entering and two counts of larceny. All of the convictions are misdemeanors.

What they said at the bond hearing: After Chatman was shot, investigators tracked Hubbard’s movements that day.

Hubbard stopped by the Dollar General store on Guess Road two hours before the shooting. Surveillance footage showed Everett “getting masks, getting gloves, getting this drink bottle,” that was found near the Rochelle Street shooting scene, Ellis said.

Sharp reviewed the footage, and it appears Hubbard and Everett purchased toboggans and gloves, she said, and that Hubbard put the drink in his bag.

Hubbard’s GPS monitoring and cell phone’s tracking indicate that Hubbard and Everett went near the shooting scene and waited, Ellis said. There were three piles of shell casings. One where Hubbard stood, another near there and another behind a building out of Chatman’s sight-line, Ellis said.

After the shooting, officers found Hubbard at the home of Devante Brandon, Montez’s brother. Police got a warrant and found guns connected to the casings at the Rochelle Street shooting scene.

One of the guns found at the house was linked to a fatal shooting at Everett’s mother’s house, Ellis said.

“There were other guns firing at him, and he, actually his grandmother, said he was firing his gun toward the car,” Ellis said. The case was ruled self defense, Ellis said, but the gun was not recovered until after Chatman’s death.

Investigators are still waiting for DNA test results on the guns found at Devante Brandon’s house, Ellis said.

Sharp said none of the evidence ties Everett to Chatman’s murder.

“My client made it very clear that he ran into Hakeem Hubbard at the Dollar General store. He did not come with him. He did not leave with him. And that he was not involved in any way, shape or form in the shooting that occurred a couple of hours later,” Sharp said at the hearing.

Police continued to question Everett after he asked for an attorney, which would prevent the interview from being used in court, both attorneys agreed. During that interview, Everett confirmed it was him in the Dollar Store video. The video will be let into evidence, but the state will still have to prove it is him in the video, Sharp said.

Everett’s phone found at Devante Brandon’s home was an old damaged phone, but officials pulled records from the number associated with phone, Ellis said.

Ellis said they have cell tracking throughout the evening that shows Everett was near the Dollar General and “that he was at all the necessary scenes that tie together,” she said.

Sharp disagreed with Ellis’ characterization of the evidence.

“Based on my reading of the FBI report, there was no activity [on Everett’s cell phone] that was able to be analyzed either immediately before, during or immediately after the shooting incident,” Sharp said.

Elijah Everett

What the judge said: Hudson said the case against Everett is weak.

“You may have probable cause to try him for murder. I agree with the defense. It is a very circumstantial case. But that’s why we have juries,” Hudson said.

How the bond changed: $350,000 secured to $350,000 unsecured. Conditions: No contact with other witnesses, and no weapons possession.

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges

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