WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) – It almost never happens: a not guilty verdict for a Wilmington man on trial for first-degree murder.
Antonio Beatty was arrested in September 2015 for the murder of 25-year-old Carlton Whitley. Whitley was found shot in a parking lot in the 3500 block of Metting Road in July 2015. Beatty pleaded not guilty and has been waiting for his day in court ever since.
“This is, as I understand it, I want to say the second time or the third time that it’s happened in 30 plus years [in New Hanover County],” Beatty’s defense attorney, Bill Peregoy, said of their victory. “So it is highly unusual. They are very, very difficult cases to defend. It usually involves quite a lot of investigative resources, quite a lot of eyewitness testimony, quite a lot of scientific testimony… But they are hard to prevail upon. We have a very tough district attorney’s office with… very good trial lawyers. So if they want to paint a picture of a defendant being a truly bad guy, they’re gifted at it. So it makes it hard to do. It’s kind of a big feat.”
While highly unusual, this is the second not-guilty verdict Peregoy has achieved for a client facing a first-degree murder charge. He also won a not-guilty verdict for Sebasitan Robinson in 2019.
Peregoy said there were several factors that he believes contributed to the jury’s decision in Beatty’s case. They deliberated for just over four hours before reaching a not-guilty verdict on Friday. Peregoy says the parking lot where Whitley died was pitch black at the time of the shooting, making it extremely difficult for a witness to identify anyone as the shooter, much less his client. Peregoy also indicated the state’s witnesses seemed reluctant to testify, and were not particularly convincing. Finally, there was no clear motive.
“Even though the law does not require you to establish motive, most people want to know why something so dramatically awful occurred. They want an answer to that. People don’t just shoot each other for the hell of it. And no one was able to provide that my guy – who had no criminal record of any kind – could go from no criminal record of any kind to first-degree, planned, premeditated murder. It’s a pretty big leap. You need to be able to attach to it some rationale,” Peregoy said.
WECT is attempting to reach Beatty for his reaction to the jury finding him not guilty. While sitting in jail for years awaiting trial, Peregoy said Beatty spent countless hours in the jail’s law library doing research to help him win his freedom.
“It was fairly inordinate number. Seven years. I think it’s the longest period of time I’ve ever heard of anybody waiting for their trial by jury,” Peregoy said. He believes court closures caused by COVID-19 are responsible for at least two years of his client’s delay. Beatty also added to the delay firing close to half a dozen attorneys. Each new lawyer would have to go through an estimated 1,000 pages of documents prepping for trial. However, Peregoy does think intentionally delaying trial is part of the strategy for prosecutors.
“I really believe in my heart that the District Attorney’s office is very happy leaving people under bonds they cannot post, in jail for as long as they need to, so that they can overcome a person’s desire to go to trial, and they will, in fact, seek a plea bargain of some kind. Mr. Beatty, was not such a man, he would not accept a plea of any kind. He wanted his day in court. And as it turns out, he was right,” Peregoy added.
District Attorney Ben David said that’s not the case. He said they wanted to take Beatty to trial years ago, and would have had a stronger chance at winning if they did. He said Beatty’s many attorney changes on top of the pandemic delays put them in the position of having to take this to court seven years after the murder. In the time that passed, the state’s case got weaker.
“It was disappointing for the victim’s family. And it should be because obviously, they’re placing their trust in the justice system to get justice. And we did everything we could within the bounds of the law to, you know, take a case that was largely based on eyewitness testimony in an unlit and dark area, and do our very best to tell the truth and the well-lit light of a courtroom,” David said. “From what I understand, and you’d have to talk to the jury directly, but from what I understand by talking with bailiffs and other people who were able to talk to them, [the jury] believed that the defendant was guilty, but they said we couldn’t prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. And if a jury has those concerns, the appropriate verdict is not guilty.”
“So we’re not going to be issuing a letter of apology to Mr. Beatty,” David added. “We believe that the right person was on trial, we simply did not have enough evidence in the view of the jury to fully satisfy an entirely convinced them of the defendants guilt. And when someone is found not guilty, it doesn’t mean they’re innocent, it means that if you can’t be sure, it’s better to risk setting a guilty person free then to condemn an innocent one.”
As for what recourse Beatty might have to compensate for the seven years he sat in jail before being found not guilty, Peregoy said he has encouraged his client to apply to the State Innocence Commission for a declaration of actual innocence. That would clear the way for him to receive monetary relief, but Peregoy said it’s an uphill battle. He estimated that only 15 people have achieved such a declaration since the Innocence Commission was formed about 20 years ago. For the moment, Peregoy said Beatty is just grateful for his freedom.
“I think that he was just so happy to be released from jail and to see his children who have literally grown up from I think they were like two and four [when he was arrested]. Now they’re like 9 and 11. I don’t think he had any plans. I had encouraged him that he has these rights, he may look into them,” Peregoy said.
For all the excitement the defense is experiencing, the jury’s decision came as a great disappointment to the victim’s family. WECT will be interviewing them about the verdict on Tuesday.
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