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Local killers dodge justice 

Ever wonder what the odds are of, as the old saying goes, "getting away with murder"?

Look at the people around you in traffic sometime — or maybe at the grocery store. You've probably passed right by a person who has committed the most reviled of all crimes.

They are a statistically elite group, and there are likely hundreds of them right here in the Queen City. They're people who took a life and got away with it — or served so little time in prison that they practically got away with it.

Americans are addicted to crime dramas where police always get their man, but in real life, it doesn't always work that way. Tens of thousands of Americans live outside the walls of our prisons despite having taken a life. They are out because they beat the odds.

Last week, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police bragged that they solved 80 percent of this year's 56 homicides, an impressive stat for any police department.

"If you commit a murder here in Charlotte, there's an eight in 10 chance that you will get caught," Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Major Vicki Foster told reporters. Well, an eight in 10 chance you will be charged and arrested, anyway. Conviction is another issue entirely.

Of those charged with murder here, another 16 percent or so will have charges against them dropped by the Mecklenburg County district attorney. That's what happened in 2009 according to an annual report by the state court system.

That means that in nearly a third of the 56 murder cases in Charlotte this year, someone will likely "get away with it."

Police and prosecutors alike will tell you that most of the time, they arrest the right person for the crime. Most dismissals of murder charges happen because the evidence against the suspect is too weak to successfully prosecute them or because dozens of other factors complicate the prosecution of the case.

In the other two-thirds of the murder cases in Charlotte this year, someone will likely do prison time. Still, there is no guarantee that you won't pass them by at the gas station sometime soon.

Unlike on TV, those who are convicted of murder don't always spend a lot of time in prison. Prosecutors in North Carolina only have the resources to bring about 15 percent of murder cases to trial before a jury. Everyone else gets a plea deal. To get a criminal to sign a piece of paper agreeing to plead guilty and go to prison for murder, the deal a prosecutor offers him has to be better than what he'd get from a judge and jury at trial. In fact, it has to be pretty darn good.

In most murder plea deals in Mecklenburg, the prosecutor knocks the charge down to second degree murder (10 to 26 years), voluntary manslaughter (19 months to eight years depending on the charge) or involuntary manslaughter (13 months to 33 months). Defendants with long criminal histories qualify for more time under the state's guidelines. Those with shorter histories qualify for less. Most murderers don't have the super long records that qualify for longest sentences, because if they did, they'd already be in prison. So plea deals that result in two to 15 year sentences for murder are fairly common, especially here in Mecklenburg County.

If you're going to commit the crime of murder in North Carolina, doing it in this county really has its advantages. Prosecutors here tend to cut sweet plea deals in murder cases, and they plea bargain more often — in a whopping 64 percent of murder cases. Statewide, on average, prosecutors plea bargain in just 48.8 percent of cases.

If you plan to "off" someone, I'd recommend taking out a victim with a criminal record, preferably as part of a drug deal. That rarely results in more than a few years in prison. It's highly unadvisable to dispatch someone who is good-looking, has a clean criminal record, is a cop or is otherwise likely to attract the media's sympathy and thus their attention. Prosecutors are more motivated to be tough if they have read about their case in the paper and know others have, too.

What this says about the value we place on human life is up for debate.

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