The saga of former Raleigh police detective Omar Abdullah finally concluded last week, when he entered an Alford plea—meaning he pleaded guilty while maintaining his innocence—to one count of felony obstruction of justice and was sentenced to 38 days in the Wake County jail and two years’ probation.
In 2019 and 2020, Abdullah charged at least 10 Black men with trafficking heroin that turned out to be fake. In two of those cases, the men were still arrested after field tests showed that the purported drugs weren’t even drugs at all. (The Raleigh Police did not typically field-test suspected narcotics.)
“My guess is no one wanted this trial to happen,” said Abraham Rupert-Schewel, an attorney who sued the city of Raleigh on behalf of the people Abdullah’s arrests affected. The lawsuits ended in settlements worth more than $2.3 million.
At his sentencing hearing, Abdullah blamed the police department: “I worked as a team and I worked as I was trained,” he said. “I never maliciously looked to harm anybody or to change any type of evidence or anything like that,” he added.
Abdullah’s attorney, Ryan Ellis, also faulted his confidential informant, Dennis L. Williams Jr., whom he says manipulated Abdullah. (Williams is facing five obstruction charges.)
But Abdullah had plenty of reasons to be suspicious of Williams—after all, he gave him the codename “Aspirin” because he’d been busted selling crushed aspirin as oxycodone, and one of his first buys as an informant produced fake cocaine. And as The Assembly previously reported, Abdullah’s fellow vice detectives were openly skeptical of Williams.
Abdullah apparently ignored their concerns.
Some of the men Abdullah falsely charged spent more time in jail than he will. But Damon Chetson, a Raleigh defense attorney who criticized Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman’s handling of the Abdullah case when he challenged her in the 2022 Democratic primary, said he believes Abdullah’s sentence was “a fair resolution” that sent a “strong signal that corruption won’t be tolerated.”
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Back in the News
In July, we wrote about NBA star Chris Paul’s new memoir, which contains beautifully rendered reflections on his close relationship with his late grandfather, Nathaniel Jones, and the grief he experienced when Jones was murdered in 2002. But relatively few pages grapple with the possibility that the five teenagers convicted of the killing didn’t commit the crime.
Now in their 30s, four of them—Nathaniel Cauthen, Rayshawn Banner, Jermal Tolliver, and Christopher Bryant—filed claims with the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission that resulted in a hearing before a three-judge panel last year. (The fifth, Dorrell Brayboy, was murdered in 2019.) After the panel upheld their convictions in April 2022, Paul wrote, “We finally feel closure and that justice was served.”
Police and prosecutors alleged the teenagers brutally attacked Jones, 61, tied him up with duct tape, and left him to die from cardiac arrhythmia in the carport of his Winston-Salem home.
But no DNA or fingerprints ever tied the teenagers to the scene. Subsequent DNA testing on the duct tape pointed to other unidentified people. A key witness has recanted, saying police coerced her into making false statements. And the men say Winston-Salem police threatened them with the death penalty to coerce false confessions that contradicted the physical evidence.
Paul still believes in their guilt. And Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill told the Winston-Salem Journal that the courts and the legislature “must intervene and put an end to these endless motions and claims of innocence.”
He did not respond to requests to elaborate.
On Our Radar
>> Hardin v. Stein
When liberal groups sued the state in 2020 to block the enforcement of a law that forbids convicted felons from voting until their civil rights have been restored, Attorney General Josh Stein moved to dismiss his office from the case, pointing out that it had never prosecuted that crime.
So “after extensive briefing and negotiation” with the AG’s Office, the groups did remove the AG’s Office and instead sued local district attorneys. Stein then told the local DAs his office would represent them in court. Stein’s office filed a motion opposing the groups’ request for a federal judge to quickly decide the case just last month, arguing that a recent change in state law likely rendered their lawsuit moot.
Still, at least one district attorney believes Stein has a conflict of interest. The North State Journal reported last week that Mike Hardin, the DA in Moore and Hoke Counties, has filed a complaint with the State Bar alleging that Stein violated four rules of professional conflict.
The article does not say which ones, and it did not publish the complaint itself. But the NSJ says Hardin believes that Stein’s “initial role as a defendant, followed by his subsequent recommendation to include the district attorneys as defendants, raises ethical questions.”
It’s probably not a coincidence that Stein is a Democrat running for governor, while Hardin is a Republican and the confidential complaint was leaked to a Republican-aligned newspaper.
>> State v. Phillips
No one disputes that Angela Phillips shot her neighbor, Latonya Dunlap, three times on her front porch in Cumberland County in April 2021. But Phillips claimed self-defense under North Carolina’s Castle Doctrine, a state law allowing a property owner to use deadly force against an intruder.
On October 3, a split state Court of Appeals panel overturned Phillips’ assault conviction, saying the trial judge messed up in his jury instructions by telling jurors that the law did not allow Phillips to use excessive force.
“In Castle Doctrine situations, excessive force is not prohibited,” Judge Jeffrey Carpenter wrote for the majority. When a defendant asserts the Castle Doctrine, “the ultimate force is presumed necessary unless the presumption is rebutted,” Carpenter continued.
That is slightly different than the state’s Stand Your Ground law, which the General Assembly passed in 2021. Stand Your Ground allows someone to use force “to the extent” necessary to “defend himself or herself.” But under Stand Your Ground, you can only use deadly force to “prevent imminent death or great bodily harm.”
If you are defending your property, those limits don’t apply, Carpenter wrote.
Briefs filed in the case present conflicting statements about what happened. Some witnesses said Dunlap never attempted to enter Phillips’ home or assault her. Another witness said Phillips slapped Dunlap before shooting her. Dunlap’s boyfriend testified that Phillips hit Dunlap with the gun before firing.
Judge Toby Hampson dissented, saying the majority had improperly detached the Castle Doctrine from the “context of the statutory scheme in which it is found.” He argued that the doctrine did not eliminate prohibitions on excessive force, but simply shifted the burden of proving excessive force to prosecutors.
The case will now go back to Cumberland County for a new trial.
Have any suggestions for improving this newsletter or stories we should look into? Email us at email@example.com.
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