RICHMOND, Va.,None — A federal appeals court upheld former NFL player Rae Carruth's conviction for plotting to kill his pregnant girlfriend, rejecting his claim that the jury was improperly swayed by statements made by the victim before she slipped into a coma and eventually died.
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that while Cherica Adams' statements and written notes should have been excluded from the trial, their admission amounted to harmless error because there was so much other evidence of Carruth's guilt.
"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 Dianna Gribbon Motz wrote in the unanimous opinion.
Carruth's lawyer, Milton Gordon Widenhouse Jr., said he plans to appeal the decision.
"We think it's an important question for the U.S. Supreme Court to address: the degree of deference that a federal court should give a state court in its interpretation of the Constitution," Widenhouse said Tuesday.
The 24-year-old Adams, who was eight months pregnant, died weeks after she was shot in November 1999 in Charlotte, N.C. Carruth, a wide receiver for the Carolina Panthers from 1997 through 1999, was acquitted of first-degree murder but was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder, discharging a firearm into occupied property and using an instrument with intent to destroy an unborn child. The boy survived and is being raised by Adams' mother.
The 37-year-old Carruth, also known as Rae Lamar Wiggins, was sentenced to 18 to 24 years in prison.
According to testimony, Adams and Carruth had gone to the movies in Charlotte, stopped by his house to get her vehicle and then Adams followed Carruth to her house. Along a twisting, two-lane road, Carruth slowed or stopped, forcing Adams to do likewise. A car pulled up beside Adams and an occupant shot into Adams' vehicle.
Van Brett Watkins fired the shots and Michael Kennedy drove the car. Both pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in exchange for testimony that Carruth paid Watkins $6,000 to kill Adams and the baby.
In a 911 call, Adams reported that she was following her boyfriend and that he slowed down and someone pulled up beside her and shot her and her unborn baby. 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 before they left he made a call and she overheard him say "We're leaving now."
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 appeals court agreed that the statements should have been excluded 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 fled after he was charged in the slaying. The FBI found him hiding in the trunk of a friend's car in Tennessee.
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