Antwaun Sims will continue to serve his life without parole sentence for his part in the January 2000 kidnapping and murder of 89-year-old Newton Grove resident Elleze Kennedy.
That word came down a short while ago from District Attorney Ernie Lee, announcing that Superior Court Judge Jack Jenkins had ruled in favor of the state in regards to a Motion of Appropriate Relief that Sim's attorney had sought based on a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision related to the age of a defendant at the time a crime was committed.
Sims was 17 years old when he and two of his friends went on a murderous joy ride that took them from Newton Grove to Harnett County and then to Cumberland, an alive, but severely beaten 89-year-old Kennedy stuffed in the trunk of the car they'd stolen from her earlier in the evening.
Kennedy eventually died, asphyxiated by smoke from a vehicle fire set just before the three abandoned the car they had used as her prison and their rolling entertainment ride.
Fourteen years after Sims, originally from the Newton Grove area, and one of his cohorts — Christopher Bell — were convicted of Kennedy's murder, the now 31-year-old was back in Onslow Superior Court in February, this time to seek relief from his life without parole sentence based on that Supreme Court ruling.
“This office is very pleased that Judge Jenkins ruled in the Antwaun Sims case that he shall remain incarcerated with a sentence of life without parole,” Lee wrote in a prepared statement released Tuesday afternoon. “Assistant District Attorney Bob Roupe and I spent much time preparing for the Motion for Appropriate Relief, and due to the horrific nature of this case, we believe that this defendant should be incarcerated for life without the possibility of parole.”
Roupe, along with former District Attorney Dewey Hudson and assistant DA Greg Butler prosecuted the case back in 2001.
Just last month, Jenkins reserved ruling on the relief case, heard in late February in the same county where the Sampson murder trial was held, moved there because of a change of venue order. According to Lee, the court wanted time to review all the evidence introduced before handing down a decision.
His review ended with Tuesday's announcement.
“This office is very pleased that the sentence remains life without parole,” Lee wrote in his statement. “This office also thanks Kenn Thompson and the rest of the family of Ms. Kennedy for their assistance and support during the original trial and the recent hearing. This was a tragic event for the victim's family and we are grateful for their assistance during the Motion for Appropriate Relief.”
It was exactly those reasons, and more, that Lee and Roup argued during the February 20 hearing, stressing that the 31-year-old Sims should remain in prison, his life without parole sentence intact.
But Sims' attorney, Carl Ivarsson, who also represented him in 2001, argued on Feb. 20 in favor of the Supreme Court decision, Miller v Alabama, which states that a mandatory life without parole sentence for anyone under the age of 18 at the time of the crime violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishment.”
In Miller, the high court ruled that a “judge or jury must have the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances before imposing the harshest penalty for juveniles.”
In response to that ruling, the N.C. General Assembly enacted GS15A-1476, which sets forth an amendment to state sentencing laws applicable to defendants convicted of first degree murder who were under the age of 18 at the time of the offense, noting that if the defendant was convicted of that crime solely on the basis of the felony murder rule, his sentence should be life imprisonment with parole. In all other cases, a hearing must be held to consider mitigating circumstances related to the defendant's age at the time of the offense, immaturity and ability to benefit from rehabilitation. At that time, a trial judge hearing the evidence is given discretion to sentence the defendant to life with or without parole.
Lee and Roupe argued that the high court's decision is not retroactive and, therefore, did not apply to Sims' sentence. The defense argued otherwise, seeking the parole option.
During the hearing last month, the state offered a transcript of the 2001 trial and sentencing, as well as prison, educational and mental health records as evidence, and Thompson, Kennedy's grandson, of Duplin County, testified about the impact the murder had on his family. Other family members, including her children and grandchildren, also attended. Kennedy's nephew is state Rep. Leo Daughtry. He was not in attendance at the hearing.
A psychologist, Sims' mother and his brother and Sims, himself, testified for the defense.
Sims and Bell were both convicted of first degree murder in 2001 based on premeditation, deliberation and malice, as well as the felony murder rule. They were also convicted of first degree kidnapping and burning of personal property in Kennedy's death. Bell was sentenced to death; Sims to life without parole. A third defendant, Chad Williams testified for the state and entered a guilty plea to murder, kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury. He was sentenced to life without parole.
Williams testified to an Onslow County jury in August 2001, detailing how he, Sims and Bell went to Kennedy's Newton Grove home Jan. 3, 2000, after Bell, spotting the 89-year-old leaving Hardees, decided he wanted to rob the elderly woman of her Cadillac. He talked about how Kennedy was assaulted, thrown into the back seat of her own vehicle, beaten severely several more times and then thrown into the trunk of the vehicle, where she stayed as the three took a multi-county joy ride, stopping to party at a trailer park along the way before returning to Sampson, setting the car on fire and abandoning it on Ira B. Tart Road.
In his testimony, Williams said Bell talked of robbing someone of their vehicle to “get where he wanted to go,” and noted that Sims said, “I'm down for whatever.”
Williams noted Sims' involvement, from driving the vehicle as they went on their joy ride — Kennedy imprisoned in the trunk — to going with Bell to the back of the car to check on Kennedy just before the vehicle was set on fire.
In talking about how they stuffed Kennedy in her trunk, Williams testified: “Chris had her by the legs. Me and Antwaun grabbed her arms and we put her in the trunk.”
He further testified that he and Sims watched — but did not try to stop — Bell from setting fire to his jacket and tossing it into the back seat of the Cadillac before the three abandoned it, Kennedy still in the trunk.
In closing arguments, then Assistant District Attorney Greg Butler told the jury all three men were responsible for the heinous acts that led to Kennedy's death. “He who hunts with the pack is responsible for the kill,” Butler said.
He said Bell, Sims and Williams “stalked their prey, chased after their prey, attacked their prey and ultimately killed their prey,” just like a wildebeest from the wild. “They dragged her away … and they finished the kill,” Butler said in arguing for a guilty verdict in Sims' and Bell's murder trial.
In court Thursday, Lee stressed that Sims, based on that evidence, should not be granted life imprisonment with the possibility of parole and that he should remain incarcerated under his current sentence.