As someone who teaches at UNC Chapel Hill, I, like the rest of our campus community, was stunned, grief-stricken, and profoundly disturbed by the murder of our student body president Eve Carson who was abducted and shot on March 5, 2008. I did not know Carson personally, but many of my students and colleagues adored her and have recounted many, many stories about what a remarkable, loving, intelligent person she was. I wish that the media coverage about Carson told more about these aspects of her life.
In the Fall of 2009, I began teaching a freshman seminar on the subject of Documentary Theatre. In this class, my students collectively choose a topic to investigate and create a play based on research and interviews they conduct throughout the semester. In the first two weeks of class, we spent a lot of time mulling over a variety of possible topics which might serve as the subject of our play. The students narrowed their interests down to two topics fairly quickly: Eve Carson’s murder and health care (which was a big news story at the time because of the Obama Administration’s controversial plans for health care reform).
My students in this course were all freshmen, so none of them had been UNC students during Carson’s tenure as student body president nor at the time of her murder. However, since most of them were from North Carolina, they had seen a great deal of news about the crime, and the shadow of loss cast across the campus had significantly colored their first days as college students. Some had misgivings about whether our class might cause greater pain to those who knew and loved Carson by conducting research about her life and death and portraying traumatic events on stage. We spent much time discussing the ethical questions surrounding the idea of creating such a play and how we might go about it.
One of my students approached me after class one day and said that she had gone to high school with one of the young men accused of Carson’s murder, and she did not feel comfortable working on a play about this subject matter. She had not been close to the accused but had known him well enough to think he was a regular kid, like so many other boys in high school. She was bewildered and frightened by Carson’s death and the implication of someone she knew in such a brutal crime. We discussed the possibility of this student completing an alternate assignment for the course if our class chose to put on a play about the Carson murder.
The class was divided fairly evenly on whether to do a play about the murder or one about health care. The tide shifted in favor of a play about health care when a particularly impassioned student told a moving story about her family’s struggles with health insurance while her mother was being treated for cancer. We produced a thoughtful and compelling series of monologues about health care that semester, and though we no longer discussed Eve Carson or the circumstances of her death, our earlier discussions stayed with me, as did my student’s concern for and confusion surrounding her high school classmate who was accused of having killed someone.
The investigations in the Carson case quickly led to two prime suspects. Demario Atwater pleaded guilty to kidnapping and murder and is now serving two consecutive life sentences in a federal prison in California. The other suspect, Laurence Alvin Lovette, now stands trial in Orange County Criminal Superior Court. Because Atwater took a plea deal, Lovette’s trial offers the general public a great deal of information about the night of Carson’s death which was never before released in such detail. My local newspaper, The Durham Herald-Sun–and likely all other major news outlets in our area–is providing a blow-by-blow accounting of each day’s courtroom testimony. In most cases I try not to read this kind of news coverage because those who covered my father’s trial said such misleading things about our case and our family when we endured what Lovette and his loved ones now face. However, I have been unable to stop myself from following the news of Lovette’s trial because I am so struck by what the testimony recounted in the news reveals about his life at the time of the crime.
Lovette is now twenty-one years old, which means he was only seventeen or eighteen at the time of the murder. An African American raised in poverty in what sounds like a pretty tough neighborhood in Durham, Lovette lived surrounded by guns and drugs. He is accused of a terrible crime, and his personality, his hopes for his life, indeed his very humanity have been left out of the news coverage and perhaps the trial itself. He is very young, and if he is convicted, he will likely never have the chance to discover a better way to live. If a jury finds him guilty, Lovette will likely never be able to explain to others, perhaps even to himself, that he is more than the worst thing he ever did. If he is guilty, I do not believe that he should go unpunished or that it is safe for him to live among us in the present moment. I also am not ready to mark him (or Demario Atwater) as irredeemable, to decide that someone just entering his twenties can never evolve or become a better person. I am unconvinced that keeping him in prison for life either makes us safer or benefits our society in the long run.
Eve Carson’s humanity has been lost in the news reports, too, and her family also fares poorly in the public descriptions of their current grief. The trial and the news are about the terrifying and gruesome events of the last night of Carson’s life, overshadowing the complexity and richness of who she was and what her loved ones endure as they continue to live. A friend of mine who came to a recent reading of Razor Wire Women remarked that he worries that both prisoners’ and victims’ stories are not told frequently enough or well enough. I concur. We know a great deal about how to tell stories about crime, but we know very little about how to understand or talk about what makes crime possible–the living and ever-shifting contexts of people’s lives, the complicated process of decision making, the vulnerabilities of victims and perpetrators.
During this holiday season, my thoughts are with the Carson, Atwater, and Lovette families and those who love them. In a time of year when we are urged to reflect on peace, good will, and the dawning of a new year of possibilities, the weight of loss, fear, and sadness stand in sharp relief to holiday celebrations. Perhaps in the days and years ahead of us, we can work together to prevent tragedies like murder and the devastation that follows incarceration.