(CN) - The 4th Circuit has upheld the conviction of former Carolina Panthers wide receiver Rae Carruth for plotting to kill his pregnant girlfriend, rejecting Carruth's claim that the jury was improperly swayed by statements the victim made before she died.
Statements and written notes by Cherica Adams should have been excluded from the trial because she had slipped into a coma by then, but their admission amounted to a "harmless" error given the mountain of evidence against Carruth, the three-judge appellate panel ruled.
"With a wealth of admissible evidence, the state presented an overwhelmingly strong case that Carruth orchestrated a plan to kill Ms. Adams to avoid paying child support and that the plan unfolded as he had designed it," Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote for the court.
"In sum, we hold that the error asserted here did not produce a 'substantial and injurious effect' on the jury's verdict," she wrote, affirming the decision of a federal judge in Charlotte, N.C.
Adams, 24, was eight months pregnant at the time of the November 1999 in Charlotte. She died several weeks later.
Carruth, also known as Rae Lamar Wiggins, had been a wide receiver for the Carolina Panthers since 1997. He was acquitted of first-degree murder but convicted of conspiracy to commit murder, discharging a firearm into occupied property and using an instrument with intent to destroy an unborn child.
The couple's son survived and is being raised by Adams' mother. Carruth was sentenced to 18 to 24 years in prison.
According to testimony from the trial recounted in the 4th Circuit's opinion, Adams and Carruth had gone to the movies in Charlotte, stopped by his house to get her car, and then Carruth unexpectedly told her he would follow her home. Carruth then called his co-conspirators to tell them he and Adams were on their way.
At some point, the vehicle Carruth was driving took the lead. While proceeding along a twisting, two-lane road, Carruth suddenly and "without legitimate reason," slowed or stopped, forcing Adams to do likewise. At that point, a car pulled up alongside Adams and a passenger shot into Adams' vehicle.
Van Brett Watkins and Michael Kennedy, who fired the shots and drove the car, respectively, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. They testified that Carruth had paid Watkins $6,000 to kill Adams and the baby.
In a 911 call, Adams reported that she was following her boyfriend and had been shot after he slowed down and someone pulled up beside her. She said Carruth left the scene.
She later told a paramedic that "Rae" shot her, describing him as "my baby's daddy." At the hospital, Adams wrote notes saying that Carruth had insisted she follow him to her house, and that she overheard him tell someone on the phone, "We're leaving now," as they got into their cars.
Carruth claimed on appeal that the statements to the paramedic and the hospital notes were the centerpiece of the prosecution's case and should not have been admitted because Adams couldn't be cross-examined.
The 4th Circuit agreed but said they were hardly the key element of the state's case, which included the "extremely powerful and unchallenged account provided by Ms. Adams" in the 911 call and the testimony of Carruth's accomplices and other witnesses.
The improperly admitted statements, the court said, "constituted mere drops in the sea of evidence offered by the state to show Carruth's guilt."
Carruth's lawyer, Milton Gordon Widenhouse Jr. of Raleigh, N.C., has said he plans to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
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