It was the nightmare every parent dreads.
In November 2003, Chad Welshans, 23, told his parents he was going out after work. He missed dinner that night, and Thanksgiving dinner with his family the next day. His parents, who live on Lake Wylie, had a sick feeling on their way home when they passed investigators working a crime scene on Rock Island Road. When they went back, investigators stopped them outside the yellow tape. It was their son. He'd essentially been executed with gun shots to the head.
Jesse Dean Myers, 19, and Albert Ernest Dietz, 21, were charged with first degree murder and robbery with a dangerous weapon, charges that could have brought them life in prison or the death penalty. But by the time our dysfunctional county justice system got through with them, they cut plea deals for second degree murder, and are serving 12- and 13-year sentences, respectively.
Scottland Belk, 39, got frustrated with his mother, Margarette Kalinoski, after a spat over a car. So he beat her skull in with a baseball bat, then strangled her to death. Days later, Kalinoski's sister found her body lying in a large pool of blood in the laundry room. America's Most Wanted helped in the hunt for Belk and his wife, who then conned their way across the country pretending to be Hurricane Katrina victims.
Like every murder case featured in this column, Belk's file contained a notice explaining that he was being charged with first degree murder. The charge "may be punishable by death," the notice signed by a Mecklenburg County prosecutor and a county judge reads.
"The state presently intends to seek the death penalty in this matter, if this matter is not resolved by a guilty plea."
Translation: Your victim's life wasn't worth a damn to this community, but our time is. If you don't hack us off by making us take this case to trial, which we lack the funds to do anyway, we'll let you off easy.
Despite a prior federal conviction for bank robbery, Mecklenburg County prosecutors offered Belk a plea deal he couldn't refuse. He pled guilty to second degree murder and is currently serving a 15-year sentence.
William Bennett Hill, now 69, was arrested by cold case detectives in 2004 for the 1993 murder of Sherry Denise Jenkins, 29, who he stabbed to death and dumped in the woods off Henderson Road. Hill's file also contained one of those "notices" about the state's intent to try him on first degree murder charges and seek the death penalty blah, blah, blah. By the time the courts were through slapping Hill's wrist, he pled to second degree murder charges and because the crime occurred when fair sentencing laws were still in effect, he served a four-year sentence. Hill is already out of prison.
Quanard Harrison's court file also contained one of those notices. He gunned down Samuel Lee Glover, 47, in front of the Seigle Avenue First Church of God in December 2005. Police say the crime was drug-related. In another sweet plea deal with the prosecutor's office, Harrison, then 19, pled to second degree murder charges and got a mere seven years and eight months in prison, ensuring he'll soon be back to terrorize this community.
These cases aren't the exception, but for the most part the rule. Unless you stab your twin daughters to death and make the national news like David Crespi did last year -- he got life in prison -- you're pretty much guaranteed a plea deal to second degree murder charges or some sort of manslaughter charge in Mecklenburg County. If you make a real mess out of your massacre and have a prior record, like Belk did, you might actually serve 15 years. But most murderers seem to do 10 to 12 years for the crime here -- if that.
According to North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts data for 2005-2006, of the 80 murder cases our severely underfunded Mecklenburg County courts handled, just three went to trial. In just 10 of the murder cases, defendants were actually convicted on the original charge.
Prosecutors cut plea deals to lesser charges in 53 percent of the cases. Charges in another 23 of the cases were dismissed outright, a dismissal rate nearly twice the state average.
This phenomenon is sometimes sarcastically referred to as "misdemeanor homicide" by some in law enforcement around here.
That about sums it up.