Crime

Durham man convicted of murder, again: ‘I just reckon I am a victim of circumstance’

Sterling Eugene Whitted sat in a wheelchair with his hands clasped as he learned he’d been found found guilty of murder again.

The Tuesday afternoon verdict convicted Whitted of first-degree murder in the killing of 43-year-old Reginald Johnson on his grandmother’s front porch in July 2018.

After the verdict, Whitted, whose severe diabetes limits his movement, turned to his two sisters and a nephew. He told them not to worry about him. He had been to prison before.

In April 1998 Whitted was convicted of two counts of assault with a deadly weapon and sentenced to probation.

About five months later police found Wayne Henry Brown, 19, unconscious in a car that hit a home on Gurley Street, according to court documents. He died on the way to the hospital.

In the car, police found a shot-out rear window and several small bags of cocaine.

Whitted was convicted of second-degree murder in Brown’s death in February 1989 and stayed in prison through November 2009. His probation ended in November 2014.

Tuesday’s first-degree murder conviction means an automatic sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole, so Judge Jim Hardin didn’t need to consider Whitted’s previous record when sentencing him.

But that didn’t stop Hardin from pointing it out and asking what Whitted had to say about it.

“I just reckon I am a victim of circumstance, your honor,” said Whitted, 49. “I just have to go with the flow.”

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Police found Reginald Johnson, 43, of Durham shot to death in the 100 block of West Channing Avenue around 4 a.m. July 31, 2018. Sterling Whitted and Derrick Motley have been charged with murder in the case.

The night Johnson was shot

In opening arguments, Assistant District Attorney Alyson Grine outlined a scenario that she said linked Whitted and a friend to the fatal shooting.

Johnson’s grandmother was sleeping on the couch in her East Channing Avenue apartment in northern Durham when the sound of gunfire outside her door woke her just after 1 a.m.

She heard her grandson call out “Grandma,” Grine said.

Johnson’s grandmother called family members, who found Johnson shot to death on the front porch. Police were called more than two hours later.

A friend had picked up Johnson around 9:30 p.m. July 30, 2018. They watched television, and the friend took him to Waffle House on Roxboro Road around 12:30 a.m. to pick some food up.

Surveillance video showed the friend dropping Johnson off around 1 a.m.

About 15 minutes before, surveillance cameras also captured a black, four-door Audi with a sunroof pulling into the apartment complex and parking near Johnson’s apartment.

A passenger got out of the Audi around 12:47 p.m., adjusted something in his waist band and walked out of the view of the camera. The passenger was a heavy man walking with a limp, Grine said. He was wearing a light-colored tank top, long shorts and black shoes with white soles.

A little after 1 a.m. the passenger ran back to the car, which drove away with its lights off.

‘They had been close once’

Later that morning, around 3 a.m., surveillance footage showed Whitted walking with a limp, wearing a light-colored tank top and black shorts checking into a local motel.

Whitted was with a friend, Derrick Motley, 39, who drove a black Audi like the one in the video. Motley, who was also charged with murder, is expected to go trial later this month.

Whitted and Motley knew Johnson, Grine said.

“They had been close once,” she said, but Johnson had distanced himself from them over the previous year.

“Witnesses will tell you he did not like the decisions that they were making,” Grine said. “He did not want to be a part of the life that they were living.”

Whitted’s attorney, Daniel Meier, argued there was no direct evidence linking his client to the fatal shooting.

“It was all circumstantial,” Meier said, noting the jury found Whitted not guilty of conspiracy to commit murder.

Testimony in the case lasted a week and the jury started deliberating around 4:15 p.m. Thursday, continuing its deliberation Friday, Monday and most of Tuesday.

‘Half of the job is done’

Johnson’s father, whose name is also Reginald Johnson, wasn’t in court for the first time Tuesday since the trial started.

After coming from Greenville for two weeks, Johnson said his back started to hurt and he was unable to drive or get his wife to drive him to Durham on Tuesday.

When Johnson learned about the verdict he was “overjoyed,” he said.

“We were all there in spirit,” Johnson said about himself and the other family members who had been attending the trial. Johnson’s son was a father of six.

Johnson said the verdict brings him a partial peace.

“Half of the job is done,” he said. “If we can get this other trial out the way, maybe we can put this behind us.”

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Virginia Bridges covers criminal justice in Orange and Durham counties for The Herald-Sun and The News & Observer. She has worked for newspapers for more than 15 years. In 2017, the N.C. Press Association awarded her first place for beat feature reporting. The N.C. State Bar Association awarded her the 2018 Media & Law Award for Best Series.
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