LEE COUNTY COURTS: State not seeking death for two murder suspects

May. 10, 2013 @ 05:01 AM

Gerald Sydnor and Christopher McCormick, two Sanford men who had been facing capital punishment if convicted, got a slight reprieve Thursday when attorneys for the state announced they would not pursue the death penalty against either one.

Sydnor, 25, is accused of killing Jonathan Lee Thomas at Las Palmas Nite Club last November. McCormick, 23, is accused of killing Jonathan Owens at Carli's South Bar & Grill in March. Both are facing first-degree murder charges.

The cases were heard at the Lee County Courthouse Thursday morning and afternoon along with several dozen others.

Attorney Jon Silverman represented both men and said that while the two cases appear similar on the surface — multiple shots fired at a night club resulting in a death for which there is not yet an autopsy report available — there are significant differences, including eye-witness accounts and potential motivation.

Since autopsies aren't ready, it's unclear what kind of bullet killed Thomas at Las Palmas or Owens at Carli's South. Pointing to a variety of different caliber bullets and casings found at the crime scene at Carli's South, Silverman said the evidence might eventually point to a shooter other than McCormick. In any case, he said, it's also possible that whoever shot Owens was acting in self defense.

"The alleged victim was armed with a handgun at the time he was shot," Silverman said, adding that it is unclear if Owens was pointing or shooting a firearm when he was killed. The state did not dispute his claims, although a police official told The Herald shortly after the shooting that several witnesses said McCormick shot Owens, 29, in the upper left chest and in the back.

Silverman said there may have been multiple shooters at Las Palmas as well, because although all the ammunition found at the scene was from .40 caliber handguns, multiple types of ammunition were used. However, Assistant District Attorney Mike Beam argued for the state that it's not uncommon for a single person to buy ammo from multiple manufacturers.

Furthermore, Beam said, two witnesses identified Sydnor as the shooter who killed the 26-year-old Thomas, a bystander helping cater a private party at the club when he was shot in the head. After a short car chase following the shooting, in which Sydnor allegedly tossed marijuana and an illegally owned SKS assault rifle out of his vehicle, he was reportedly arrested in the same clothing witnesses said they saw the shooter wearing.

However, Silverman said an investigator he employs determined that both witnesses, a security guard and a regular citizen, might not be credible. At least one security guard fired his own weapon in the parking lot after the initial shooting, Silverman said, showing pictures of text messages in which the guard allegedly admits firing several hollow-point .45 caliber rounds, potentially hitting someone. The guard reportedly then sent a second text message asking the recipient not to tell police because he didn't want them to confiscate his gun.

"This is another weak murder case from the Sanford Police Department, who don't realize security guards are shooting at people," Silverman said, adding that if Sydnor were to be granted a pretrial release, Sydnor's mother would keep him at her home in Goldsboro under house arrest.

Beam countered that Sydnor has a long list of convictions and was violating both his 6 p.m. curfew and probation when he was at Las Palmas at 1 a.m., regardless of whether he was the shooter. Sydnor has previously been charged with failure to pay court fees, as well as failure to appear in Lee County, Chatham County and twice in Harnett County, Beam said. Not counting this most recent stint, Sydnor has reportedly served two months and 16 days in jail for a variety of felonies between 2008 and 2010, including possession of multiple types of drugs with intent to sell and possession of a firearm by a felon.

Superior Court Judge Charles Winston Gilchrist ultimately issued Sydnor a $1 million bond.

Also Thursday, an administrative hearing for Donald McLaughlin was set for the week of June 10. McLaughlin was charged with two felony counts of first-degree murder, felony robbery with a firearm or other dangerous weapon and two felony counts of kidnapping nearly two years ago in connection with two Sanford residents found shot to death in a burning car. The bodies of Christopher Michael Plush, 30, and Anna Stack Truelove, 21, were discovered behind Warren Williams Alternative Elementary School on Aug. 21, 2011, and McLaughlin was arrested and charged two days later.