Victim’s family speaks after man charged with murder walks free

Seven year wait before trial hurt state’s case; Beatty’s was oldest pending murder case in county
Beatty’s was the oldest murder case yet to be tried in New Hanover County.
Published: Aug. 18, 2022 at 10:51 AM EDT
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NEW HANOVER COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - Ebony Silman is in disbelief over what happened to her family. They already suffered the loss of her brother, 25-year-old Carlton Whitley. Now, the man charged with first degree murder for killing him is free, after a jury found him not guilty.

“She called me just crying. She was just shocked. And you know, she was more hurt because they really let a murderer walk,” Silman said of getting the call from her sister Friday sharing that a New Hanover County jury found Antonio Beatty not guilty. “When the jury came out for the verdict, my sister said they was crying. You could tell like they was forced, they was angry. She said you could just tell in the eyes that they’d been crying.”

Silman says she has no doubt in her mind that Beatty killed her brother in July of 2015. While authorities never found a murder weapon, Silman says DNA evidence put Beatty at the scene of the crime, and an eyewitness identified Beatty as the shooter. But another one of the state’s key witnesses backed out the day he was supposed to testify.

“[The witness that backed out was Beatty’s] best friend. And the witness that came [to testify], he said plainly, ‘I seen him do it. He did it. I seen the barrel of the gun light up. He did it.’ It was nobody there but Carlton and Antonio, he saw him do it,” Silman said.

But defense attorney Bill Peregoy took issue with the testimony, noting it would have been extremely difficult to positively identify anyone in the dark parking lot of the Market North Apartments where the murder happen. Silman also said that because seven years had passed from the time of the murder to the time the case went to trial, some of the witnesses’ memories of the events had grown foggy, and defense attorneys picked apart inconsistencies with what they said on the witness stand versus what they told to investigators right after the 2015 murder.

Silman says a family member of one of the jurors called her after the trial, confirming her suspicions that the jury felt conflicted over the not guilty verdict.

“She was like, ‘No, Ebony, [my grandmother] was on the jury. And she can’t sleep. She can’t eat, because they know he was guilty.’ But because of she said the lack of evidence because they didn’t have the murder weapon, [they couldn’t agree to convict him],” Silman said of the call.

Beatty’s was the oldest murder case yet to be tried in New Hanover County. The pandemic put a stop to all jury trials for two and a half years, but Beatty fired a reported six attorneys before his trial, adding significant delays as each new attorney tried to familiarize themselves with his case.

“It was hard. Every time we thought we had a trial date he would fire his lawyer to buy more time. And it just kept - it was a repeating cycle,” Silman said. “It was a lot because we was ready to get it over because we knew once it happened, we was gonna have to relive the whole situation again.”

District Attorney Ben David expressed regret over the outcome of this case, saying they would like to have tried it years ago and they think it would have been a stronger case if they could have. To the best of his knowledge, the not guilty verdict Beatty won is one of only three not guilty verdicts in a first degree murder trial in New Hanover County in the 23 years David has served as a prosecutor here.

“Look back over the last two decades, and see the success we’ve enjoyed in this office to know that juries back us up when we speak for the dead. We know that these are the most important cases in the system. And, of course, no one’s happy to hear the words not guilty on a case where we absolutely believe that the right person was on trial. These things are going to happen every now and then,” David said of the outcome.

Since the victim’s family believes that Beatty intentionally fired attorney after attorney to drag out the timeline for trial and improve his chances of winning, WECT asked David if there was a limit to how many times a defendant could fire an attorney before being forced to go to court. David agreed it’s a common delay tactic, but said there was no limit to how many attorneys a defendant could use. However, after going through an excessive number of attorneys, a defendant can forfeit his right to counsel.

That happened in the Nasheed Porter murder trial. After firing three consecutive attorneys, the judge warned Porter he’d be on his own if he fired any one else. Porter proceeded to fire his fourth attorney and then represented himself in court. Out of an abundance of caution, the judge appointed a lawyer to serve as standby counsel in case Porter decided he needed help during the trial. Juries ultimately found Porter guilty in the murders of Brian Grant and Obadiah Hester.

There are 62 pending homicide cases prosecutors are preparing to take to trial in New Hanover County. Most of them are first degree murder cases, but the others include second degree murder, involuntary manslaughter, and death by motor vehicle cases. Beatty’s case was the oldest that had yet to be tried. Jonathan Southers’ case is the next oldest. He’s charged in the 2018 murder of Yolanda Bentley, and is set to go to trial in November.

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