Pleas, promises, and probation: Suspects in trooper’s death put 2nd chance in jeopardy

Pleas, promises, and probation: Suspects in trooper’s death put 2nd chance in jeopardy

COLUMBUS COUNTY, NC (WECT) - Chauncy Askew was given a chance to turn his life around.

The 18-year-old faced years in prison if convicted of more than a half dozen charges stemming from an alleged crime spree last year.

But his attorney claimed he had seen a change in him and helped whittle down what could have been a life-changing sentence into a seemingly best-case plea deal. Adding to that, the judge in the case felt the 10 months he had spent behind bars awaiting trial was enough and imposed unsupervised probation, allowing Askew to walk free.

Trooper Kevin Conner (Source: NC Highway Patrol)
Trooper Kevin Conner (Source: NC Highway Patrol) (NC Highway Patrol)

Askew was back in a courtroom two months later, this time accused of killing beloved North Carolina State Trooper Kevin Conner during a traffic stop.

Askew’s co-defendant, 20-year-old Raheem Davis, is also charged with first-degree murder in the case. He, like Askew, had already spent years weaving through the court system when he was arrested in Conner’s murder.

The pair’s criminal history outraged many in the tight-knit, rural community of Columbus County. Did our judicial system fail by allowing these two young men back on the streets in a position to do more harm?

A WECT investigation of court records and transcripts reveal court-appointed attorneys, assistant district attorneys and the judge went out of their way to give both Askew and Davis another chance to succeed. Perhaps because of their age. Perhaps because of other factors. As they say, hindsight is 20/20 and in light of what has been described as a “cold-blooded, first-degree murder,” the decisions that led to breaks for Askew and Davis have not aged well.

“I’m not going to see you anymore, right?”

Askew had his first run-in with law enforcement at 16 years old.

According to court records, Askew was convicted in Cumberland County of felony identity fraud/theft and felony possession of a stolen firearm on May 11, 2017 for an incident on July 31 the year before. N.C. Department of Corrections records indicate Askew was paroled on July 31, 2017. Over the next two months, Askew was convicted of misdemeanor larceny in Columbus County and simple assault in Wayne County.

Then, in mid-October of that year, he was arrested by the Chadbourn Police Department in Columbus County on a laundry list of felony charges. He was ultimately indicted on one count of felony robbery with a dangerous weapon, one count of felony second-degree kidnapping, two counts of felony break or enter a motor vehicle, one count of felony larceny of a motor vehicle, and two counts of misdemeanor larceny.

Arrest warrants indicate the charges stemmed from four separate incidents that occurred between Oct. 12 and 14, 2017.

Askew spent 303 days in jail after his arrest awaiting trial. During that time, his attorney, Harold G. Pope, communicated with Cathi Radford, the assistant district attorney prosecuting the case, about a possible plea deal on at least three occasions, court records show. An initial offer appears to have been made on Jan. 9 of this year.

Details about any previous versions of the plea agreement are scant, but the deal ultimately agreed upon dismissed all charges against Askew except one count of break or enter a motor vehicle. It also included a mitigated sentence of 4 months minimum to 14 months maximum, largely decided upon because of Askew’s cooperation with investigators early on in the investigation, according to documents.

The plea was made pursuant to Alford, which typically means a defendant maintains his or her innocence but admits there is enough evidence against him or her for a conviction.

Of the documents reviewed by WECT, the most enlightening was the court reporter’s transcript from the Aug. 14 hearing.

According to that document, Radford provided the following as factual basis for the plea:

“Had this matter gone to trial, you would have heard evidence that on or about the dates listed in the indictment, which were October 12, 2017, through an investigation for the Chadbourn Police Department, here in Columbus County, for some breaking and enterings in some vehicles that were being done around the area, that the defendant in this case unlawfully, willfully, and feloniously did break and enter a motor vehicle, which was a gray four-door Honda Accord… which contained things of value, with the intent to take a larceny therein, and items were removed from the cars. Judge, this was an investigation involving several people for the breaking and enterings into the vehicles around the Chadbourn area. Mr. Askew, along with several other individuals, were arrested and charged.”

Not mentioned was the reported home invasion Askew was allegedly involved in last year – the basis for the robbery and kidnapping charges that were dismissed as part of the plea agreement.

...I’m hoping this has gotten his attention.
Attorney Harold Pope

When asked by Judge Douglas Sasser if he had any comments regarding Askew’s sentence, Pope said he “had enjoyed talking to (Askew)” and had “seen a change in him since (he had been in jail),” according to the transcript.

“To his credit, he, on his own, went downtown Chadbourn to the police department and met voluntarily with Detective Spivey at the time, and that's one of the reasons why I think we were able to work out this plea for him,” Pope said. “But I'm hoping he'll be home pretty soon, and I'm hoping this has gotten his attention.”

Radford declined to comment on the sentence, the transcript indicates, and ultimately left certain particulars about Askew’s fate up to the judge.

“Would the State have any objection – considering he’s got 10 months in – if I, instead of doing the active sentence, if I gave a probationary sentence with unsupervised probation in this matter?” Sasser asked Radford.

“Judge, leave it in your discretion,” Radford responded.

“He would appreciate that, Your Honor,” Pope added.

Arguably the most chilling exchange occurred moments before the hearing ended.

“I’m going to put you on probation, on unsupervised probation in this matter; that gets you out of jail today,” Sasser said to Askew. “Are you good with that?”

“Yes, sir,” Askew replied.

“And I’m not going to see you anymore; right?” Sasser asked.

“No, sir. No, sir,” Askew answered.

Based on North Carolina’s structured sentencing laws, Askew would have spent a minimum of 3.67 years in prison had his case gone to trial and he been found guilty of all seven charges listed in the indictments. If ordered to serve the sentences consecutively, he would have spent a minimum of around 5.5 years in prison. WECT applied the lowest amount of time possible in the mitigated range for each offense to calculate those numbers.

Pope declined an on-camera interview but told WECT in a phone interview he was heartbroken when he learned of Askew’s arrest in Conner’s murder.

“It’s an absolute tragedy," he said. “When I saw Chanucy Askew had been charged, it broke my heart, Kevin Conner was a friend of mine.”

Pope added there was nothing unusual about the plea, it was negotiated based on his age, cooperation, and time served.

“(Defense attorney’s) have to negotiate pleas, do the best we can for our client without any knowledge of what will happen in the future,” Pope said.

Radford did not respond to numerous requests for comment. A representative for the Chadbourn Police Department declined to comment.

“You ought to appreciate somebody going to bat for you”

Public records indicate Raheem Davis’ one and only case in the criminal-justice system prior to his alleged involvement in Conner’s murder stemmed from an apparent gang-related shooting in 2015.

In the early morning hours of June 15, 2015, a Raleigh couple driving through Chadbourn on their way to Myrtle Beach for a vacation found themselves in the middle of a shootout.

"All of a sudden, I heard, pow, pow, pow, pow, pow," Sue Skelton said in an interview with WECT two days after the incident. "I thought we must have hit rocks or something."

Davis, who was 16 years old at the time and one of three men accused in the incident, was initially charged with felony discharging a weapon into occupied property and two counts of misdemeanor assault with a deadly weapon, according to court documents.

As in Askew’s case, little is known about any internal discussions regarding the plea deal. The arrangement Davis’ public defender and the prosecutor ultimately agreed to reduced the felony discharging a weapon into occupied property from a class D to a class E offense – the difference essentially coming down to whether or not the vehicle was being driven at the time of the offense – and dismissed both counts of misdemeanor assault with a deadly weapon.

Coincidentally, Judge Douglas Sasser also presided over Davis’ Jan. 30, 2017 plea hearing.

As factual basis for the plea, Assistant District Attorney Kaitlyn Richards said authorities investigating the incident interviewed two witnesses, who said they saw Davis and his codefendant across the street, the former armed with a rifle and the latter equipped with a handgun, according to the court reporter’s transcript.

“(The witnesses) also allege that those weapons were pointed at them,” Richards said. “And we’ll be dismissing those (charges) based on this plea.”

Asked if there was any suggestion of gang activity, Richards said there was, indicating the third person charged in the incident, Carl Mason, was Davis’ intended target.

“We’ll make sure also the gang-related terms and conditions of probation be required,” Sasser said.

For her part, Davis’ court-appointed attorney, Misty Jorgensen, provided the following to supplement the factual basis of the plea:

“Your Honor, had this matter gone to trial, the evidence for the defense would have shown that several times in the past Mr. Mason has attempted to fire a weapon at my client on various streets in Chadbourn. On this particular day, Mr. Mason was firing at my client; my client returned fire, Your Honor, in self-defense; but, unfortunately, a car was in the middle that had nothing to do with that. And so that’s where we are.”

The deal, which similar to Askew’s was made pursuant to Alford, included a mitigated sentence of 15 to 30 months, which was suspended, with two years of supervised probation. It also stipulated that in addition to paying nearly $2,400 in restitution, Davis must undergo a Treatment Accountability for Safer Communities (TASC) assessment – a program designed to combine “the influence of legal sanctions with treatment and support services to permanently interrupt the cycle of addiction and crime,” according to the program’s website – and either re-enroll in school, maintain employment, or take a job-readiness class.

What remains unclear is why the mitigating factor – the fact that Davis admitted responsibility in the shooting – outweighed several aggravating factors listed on court documents. Those factors included that the offense “was especially heinous, atrocious or cruel” and that he “knowingly created a great risk of death to more than one person by means of a weapon or device which would normally be hazardous to the lives of more than one person.”

Regardless, all signs indicate both sides wanted to give Davis, who at that time was a 16-year-old first-time offender, an opportunity to turn his life around. His attorney even told the court she worked fewer hours on Davis’ case than she actually did, all so he wouldn’t have to pay as much in court-appointed attorney’s fees, according to the transcript. Assistant District Attorney Richardson notified Sasser of the discrepancy.

“I want to give Mr. Davis a chance to make good on probation, and I think $2,300 in restitution for someone who has a part-time job with a temp agency is just not realistic,” Jorgensen explained during the plea hearing.

I certainly hope -- if they’re trying to help you, I certainly hope you are going to try to help yourself.
Judge Douglas Sasser

Sasser ultimately decided to remit supervision fees – a $30 monthly fee defendants on supervised probation are typically required to pay – saying Davis could put the money he would have spent on that towards Jorgensen’s actual 17 hours of work she put into the case.

“You ought to appreciate somebody going to bat for you at this point, and I hope I don't see you back up here,” Sasser warned Davis. “If you don't do what you're supposed to do and there's a probation violation, it's coming back in front of me; and then just be careful; if somebody has gone to bat trying to help you out, I certainly hope -- if they're trying to help you, I certainly hope you are going to try to help yourself.”

“Yes, sir,” Davis responded.

Had Davis been convicted of the original class D offense, he would have received an active prison sentence of approximately 3.2 years, according the state’s structured sentencing laws. Like in Askew’s case, that number was calculated using the lowest amount of time in the mitigated sentence range. Had he also been found guilty of the two counts of misdemeanor assault with a deadly weapon, the worst possible outcome in terms of jail time would have been an additional 120 days tacked onto his sentence.

Neither Jorgensen nor Richards responded to requests for comment.

Askew and Davis remain jailed without bond in Conner’s killing. The Columbus County District Attorney’s Office has announced it intends to seek the death penalty against Askew.

Copyright 2018 WECT. All rights reserved.