Thomas Clayton didn't pull the trigger on the gun that killed a 19-year-old Riverside High graduate, but he does face the rest of his life behind bars after a jury's verdict Monday.
Superior Court Judge Osmond Smith sentenced Clayton to life in prison without the possibility of parole, a mandatory sentence when someone is found guilty of first-degree murder.
Defense attorney Daniel Meier gave the judge a notice of appeal.
The four-man, eight-woman jury deliberated briefly last week and all day Monday before finding Clayton guilty of murder, robbery and other charges in the April 18, 2013, killing of JeJuan Taylor, 19, who was shot twice in the head in the Duke Manor apartments' parking lot.
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Clayton had testified that he was looking to connect with Taylor that night because he needed a new source for marijuana he planned to sell to college students at Campus Crossing apartments.
“The person I was buying weed from, he was overcharging me and the quality was trash,” Clayton testified.
His testimony differed from that of co-defendant Hope Farley, who took a plea deal and testified for the prosecution. Their competing narratives opened a window onto fatal street crimes in Durham — which account for the majority of homicides in the Bull City.
Four people — all 19 to 21 and one of them an N.C. Central University student — were charged with murder. Trials for two other co-defendants are to start later this year.
The 2013 case is also an example of multiple people being charged in a homicide with one shooter. There are about 51 people currently charged with 17 homicides in Durham where two or more people are accused. Under state law, anyone who commits a dangerous felony, such as armed robbery, that leads to a death can face a first-degree murder charge.
Clayton has spent the last five years in jail awaiting trial. Now 26, he was the first defendant in the 2013 shooting to go to trial.
As the final witness in his trial, Clayton spent a little more than a day on the stand.
His co-defendant, Farley, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in a plea deal in which she agreed to testify against her co-defendants for a sentence of 10 to 13 years.
Near the start of the trial, Farley described a chance encounter with Clayton at the downtown bus station that led to the killing.
Farley said Clayton provided the gun and introduced her to Rakeem Best and Timothy Moore. Farley said she arranged the drug deal with Taylor, whom she had known for years, and that Clayton drove the getaway car.
According to the plan, Clayton was to stay in the car while Farley, Best and Moore robbed Taylor, Farley said. But when Moore ran up to Taylor's car and stuck the gun through the window, Taylor started rolling the window up, Farley said.
“So when the car started catching speed, his feet tumbled,” Farley said. “His arm caught the car. He started shooting, which caused his body to fall.”
The car crashed into a fence, and Best and Farley ran back to SUV Clayton was driving, Farley said.
Moore didn’t return to the car, Farley said.
'Who snatched my money'
Clayton told a very different story.
He said Farley took the lead in setting up the drug deal after he asked her to connect him to a marijuana source.
Clayton reached out to Farley late that afternoon., asking if she could help connect him to a source to buy two ounces of marijuana, he testified.
“She told me she could, and she wanted me to pick her up,” from the bus station, Clayton said.
Clayton picked up Farley at the station, he said. She was the one that brought Moore, Clayton said, telling the jury he was giving Farley side eye because he didn’t expect her to bring anyone.
Farley was working hard to connect him to a dealer because she wanted a free cut of the spoils, Clayton said. Clayton borrowed $250 from a friend to help him pay $650 for two ounces of marijuana, he said. The person who loaned him money started to get impatient as one dealer Farley connected him to canceled and the other was taking a long time to meet up.
During the deal, Farley and two others went to the meet-up spot, while Clayton sat in the car and texted people anxious for him to deliver the marijuana, he said.
He heard gun shots and, and then Farley and Best came running back to the car.
“I thought they got robbed and were getting shot at,” Clayton said.
Farley told Clayton that someone took his money, Clayton said.
“I am asking her, who snatched my money?” he said. “She wouldn’t tell me.”
Clayton dropped Best and Farley off at Best’s apartment, and then went to meet with the person who had loaned him money, he said.
During closing arguments, Meier, Clayton’s attorney, argued that the investigator in the case had tunnel vision after Farley cooperated and sought evidence that bolstered her testimony.
He asked why the state did not gather Farley’s phone records and surveillance footage from the bus station to see how Moore ended up in Clayton’s car.
Meier also pointed to witness statements he said indicated the shooter wanted Taylor dead. He suggested Farley was protecting Moore, possibly because he threatened her after the shooting. He also questioned why police didn’t identify Moore until three years later after the killing.
In June 2016, police connected a palm print they found on the driver's side door of Taylor's car in 2013.
Testimony indicated that someone in the Durham police forensics’ department made a match to Moore in 2013, but that match wasn’t communicated to the investigator. Somehow the fingerprint connection to Moore was discovered by prosecutors in the summer of 2016 and Moore was charged in Taylor’s killing.
In May 2016, two months before police charged him in Taylor's 2013 death, Moore was charged with killing a store clerk, a father of six, at a convenience store on Broad Street. Another clerk was shot in the robbery.
Jim Dornfried, one of two assistant district attorneys on the case, said the case was about “money and weed.”
Best and Clayton were having money troubles, he said.
Dornfried pointed out how Clayton’s testimony was inconsistent with Farley’s testimony, Clayton’s former girlfriend and a Duke Manor security employee.
When Dornfried questioned Clayton, he asked if each of those people was lying.
Clayton said they were.
Dornfried also argued that Clayton’s friend didn’t loan him money but the gun used to shoot Taylor.
While the clerk read the verdict, Taylor’s mother, Nakecha Taylor, leaned over, her knees bouncing, looking down.
When the clerk finished reading the guilty verdicts, her body was shaking, as she clutched her heart, wiped her tears and grasped a tissue She could barely speak when the judge gave her the opportunity during the sentencing.
Instead, Taylor’s father and namesake stepped forward and thanked the jury, wiping his own tears.
“I thank you for my son. I just thank you,” JeJuan Taylor Sr. said. “It gave us closure. It gave us justice, and it frees us up from a burden, a very heavy burden.”