UNC’s Division of Student Affairs is used to dealing with difficult situations. But when they heard of Eve Carson’s murder in March 2008, employees tasked with supporting student well-being on campus knew this would be different.
Dean Jonathan Sauls said he thought to himself, ‘How are we going to support all of the students who have a connection to her?’
It was an incident without many parallels.
As Student Body President, Carson was the literal representative of the student body, and her name was recognizable to anyone on campus.
“You never really had a combination of not only just a horrific crime and then an ensuing manhunt for a period of time, but then an ability to identify with a student,” Sauls said. “You saw out of that an outpouring of emotion.”
Carson’s death, which drew national media attention, left a grief-stricken campus wondering if anything could have been done to prevent the tragedy.
Since the 2008 murder, the probation system has had a three-part revamp as a direct result of failures involved in the cases of the men charged. There are more blue lights around campus, and new technology has made preventing, reporting and punishing crime easier.
Not all the changes came as direct responses to the 2008 murder, but the incident made UNC, the state and the criminal system take a closer look at ways to prevent crime.
As student body president, Carson asked the Chapel Hill Town Council to install three emergency call boxes and lighting off campus. The Town Council took final steps to place the first off-campus boxes just months after she died.
Students approved a fee increase to pay the $80,000 cost for the project, which members of student government said was motivated by Carson’s murder, the Daily Tar Heel reported.
Randy Young, spokesperson for the UNC Department of Public Safety, said the campus police didn’t feel the aftershocks of Carson’s murder as much as the town police, since they weren’t the ones who responded to the case, but said DPS doesn’t live in a vaccuum.
“It involved agencies we work day-to-day with and members of our campus community, so the tragedy is all the more keenly felt,” Young said.
There have been a number of new safety program implementations and changes to old ones since 2008, though Young said they weren’t directly related to Carson’s murder but “made good sense for security.”
After the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech, DPS worked to re-examine the way it communicates on campus during emergencies, specifically with the Alert Carolina program. In addition to a campus-wide email, it uses text messages to tell students about emergencies.
In 2008, The News & Observer published a series of articles revealing a broken probation system. Atwater was on probation and Lovette was on parole at the time of Carson’s murder, leading to a three-part overhaul of the state probation system: a reform bill, internal changes in supervision standards and digitization of record-keeping.
Court officials repeatedly passed on opportunities to detain Lovette and didn’t take his juvenile records into account when he was on trial in the adult system, The News and Observer reported. At 16, Lovette, who was on parole, was arrested for breaking and entering and charged with felonies as an adult. He plead guilty to three misdemeanors, was sentenced to two years of probation and left jail Jan. 16. Lovette was never punished for violating his parole and never met his adult probation officer.
Atwater was on probation at the time of the murder, and he had been served an arrest warrant for failing to comply with his probation.
He was free at the time of Carson’s killing despite the probation violation, and Wake County probation officials had failed to transfer his file to Durham County where he had moved despite a court order to do so, the News and Observer reported.
After the 2008 incident the state Department of Corrections conducted a critical internal examination.
“It’s hard to explain the volume and level of change that’s taken place,” said Tim Moose, director of the department.
Moose started as an parole officer and worked on the 2009 probation reform law before becoming director in 2009.
“Any time someone commits another offense it’s taken very seriously.” he said. “It’s an officer’s worst nightmare.”
The officers say the new technology is the biggest change to their day-to-day tasks, and the revamp has changed how they think about supervising people, said spokesperson Keith Acree.
The new technology gives them the tools to to their job more efficiently, officers said. The new probation officer dashboard allows an officer to pull up his or her caseload, as well as information from the court system at the county level. Plus, through database systems, the department shares information with law enforcement, allowing police officers on the street to know if a driver is on probation or parole and if there is a warrant out for his or her arrest.
With the new evidence-based supervision strategy, officers focus more on offenders who are at higher risk of committing another crime, rather than setting a supervising routine based solely on the court sentencing.
Offenders who are assessed and found to be high-risk because of substance abuse, gang involvement or dysfunctional families, for example, are required to be more in contact with their officer, and lower-risk offenders can self-report.
“It gives an officer direction for time with offenders with the greatest risk,” Moose said.
The reform bill permitted officers to warrant searches on probationers, which previously officers were only allowed to do if the judge had checked it off on the case, Moose said.
The biggest challenges in all the reforms has been the sheer volume of changes and coordinating with so many branches, he said, including the justice department and law enforcement.
The technology changes cost staff time, and the the department has made internal shifts without additional cost to the state. It is now in its fourth phase of reform, another legislative reform called justice reinvestment forcing closer supervision of offenders on probation and those released from prison.
Atwater and Lovette’s cases highlighted deficiencies in communication among state agencies.
CJLEADS, or The Criminal Justice Law Enforcement Automated Data Services, is a system of tracking and monitoring criminals that state leaders began testing in 2009.
“Until the very recent implementation of CJLEADS and some other statewide programs, it took lots of time to get information about criminals and some agencies still had paper records which could take days,” said Bryan Lambert, chief of the Badin Police Department in Stanly County, N.C. “By that time your criminal could be long gone.”
It merges records, including warrant, probation, court and parole information, from different agencies into a single database, allowing officers to search for information in a single place rather than in multiple databases from different agencies.
“It helps shorten interactions between law enforcement agencies. Now officers can spend less time in front of a computer and more time out doing their job,” said Sgt. Josh Mecimore, spokesperson for Chapel Hill Police Department.
The North Carolina Warrant Repository, or NCAWARE, was designed to issue and track warrants for all wanted persons in the state.
It tracks the criminal processes, such as warrants, magistrate orders and arrest citations, allowing the police to extradite someone with a serious criminal charge from another county and prosecute them, Mericose said.
Not all counties are using the program yet, but all magistrates have access to the database.
Mericose said it’s hard to say whether the new information-sharing programs could have prevented Carson’s early death, but Lambert disagrees.
“If those systems were in place four years ago, it is very likely that Eve Carson would still be alive today,” Lambert said.
Although officials are working to implement the programs quickly, they have to balance speed with accuracy in the information.
“We’re dealing with serious crimes here,” Lambert said. “The developers have to make sure an error or typo in the system wouldn’t lead to a false arrest.”
CJLEADS and NCAWARE are unique to North Carolina right now, but long-term they are working toward one national system with state and federal information, Mericose said.
Liz McLaughlin contributed reporting to this story.