Man pleads guilty to manslaughter in death of Durham activist Umar Muhammad

A public memorial service for community organizer Umar Muhammad of Durham will be announced soon. Muhammad died Monday after a driver collided with his motorcycle on South Alston Avenue. He was 30 years old.
A public memorial service for community organizer Umar Muhammad of Durham will be announced soon. Muhammad died Monday after a driver collided with his motorcycle on South Alston Avenue. He was 30 years old. courtesy of Rodrigo Dorfman

The man charged in the death of a Durham activist and restorative-justice advocate could spend more than three years in prison.

Rodney McLaurin, 46, of Durham pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter in the 2017 crash that killed Umar Muhammad, 30.

Around 11:40 a.m. July 17, 2017, Muhammad was driving a Honda VT1300CX motorcycle south on South Alston Avenue. McLaurin hit the motorcycle with the front left quarter of his 1996 Cadillac Seville as he turned left from Massey Avenue onto Alston.

“Umar tried to go to the left to avoid contact but was not able to do so safely,” Assistant District Attorney Dale Morrill said in an interview.

Muhammad, the father of a then 2-month-old girl, was taken to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

McLaurin was sentenced to 33 to 49 months in jail by visiting Superior Court Judge Carolyn Thompson on Sept. 5.

If McLaurin serves the maximum sentence, nine months of that time would be spent on post-prison release.

Rodney McLaurin.png
Rodney McLaurin

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Increase in traffic fatalities

Morrill said that the death of Muhammad was a “terrible tragedy” that Durham is seeing more of in recent years.

In 2017, Durham had 32 traffic fatalities, up from 24 in 2015.

“Eight fatalities, that is a significant number,” Morrill said. That means eight more families are grieving the loss of a loved one, he said.

So far, there have been about 26 traffic fatalities this year, Morrill estimated.

Factors that could be influencing the increase in fatalities along with a jump in crashes – from about 8,000 in 2015 to about 10,200 in 2017 - include a drop in traffic stops by police, fewer tickets being issued for minor infractions, and more distracted driving or reckless behavior, Morrill said.

“It’s frustrating because you have someone like Umar trying to help people to rehabilitate and reengage people in the community,” Morrill said, “who was struck down more or less by someone who had drugs in their system,” and demonstrating “more or less reckless behavior.”

The charges

McLaurin was originally charged with misdemeanor death by vehicle since he initially didn’t appear to be impaired, Morrill said.

The charge was upgraded to involuntary manslaughter after tests indicated he had fentanyl, heroin and cocaine in his system, court officials said.

Dozens of people attended the hearing this month and many spoke, said Umar’s brother, Nashid Muhammad, 35, of Charlotte.

“It was a lot of emotions going in,” Nashid Muhammad said in a telephone interview. “When people came up to give their statement about my brother and the impact he made on people’s lives, it was beautiful to hear how he touched people’s lives to become better. You know, learning something about themselves, or giving them a piece of him that they live on with.”

Community activist Umar Muhammad, center, died Monday after being involved in a traffic collision. Courtesy of Rodrigo Dorfman.

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‘One of the best organizers in the country’

Umar Muhammad had returned to the Durham community in 2012 after serving nearly five years in prison for armed robbery.

He became involved with SpiritHouse and other groups. Soon people began calling him a visionary, someone who could convince those who had served time in prison that they mattered, while fighting for cultural and policy changes on the local, state and national levels.

“We are losing one of the best organizers in the country,” Daryl Atkinson said after Muhammad’s death “And the movement is losing our next wave of leadership.” Atkinson is co-director of Forward Justice, a center seeking to advance social, racial and economic justice in the South.

After returning to the community, Muhammad worked for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice as a community organizer for two years. In July 2017 he left that organization to become lead organizer and campaign strategist for Forward Justice where he planned to work on national issues through the Formerly Incarcerated, Convicted People’s & Families Movement.

Across the region he advocated for SpiritHouse’s Harm Free Zones Movement, and in North Carolina he worked through All of Us Or None-NC, a state chapter of a human rights organization advocating for current and formerly incarcerated people.

Nashid Muhammad, the primary caregiver of his brother’s now 16-month-old daughter, said Umar believed you are not the sum of your worst mistakes, but “you have to take accountability, and I don’t feel like [McLaurin] did.. ... [He] made a conscious choice to put heroin in [his] system.”

Nashid Muhammad said, he wakes up his niece every day talking about her dad, “but she will never be able to hug him.”

Daniel Meier, McLauren’s attorney, said his client apologized to the family and judge at the hearing.

“He never meant for it to happen,” Meier said. “He didn’t feel he was impaired at the time.”

Meier said McLauren was in drug treatment before the crash and continued afterward.

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges
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