HENDERSON — Authorities completed the murder prosecution of Marcus Tyrell Hargrove on Monday, with Superior Court Judge Cindy Sturges giving him a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
“Mr. Sheriff, he’s in your custody,” Sturges said after ruling that there were no aggravating or mitigating factors at issue in the decision following Hargrove’s acceptance of a plea agreement last week that took a potential death penalty off the table.
Hargrove admitted to first-degree murder in the Aug. 19, 2017, fatal shooting of his estranged girlfriend, Shaekeya Danielle Gay, outside the Dabney Drive Food Lion.
By law, death or life without parole are the only possible penalties for first-degree murder, which by definition is a “willful, deliberate. and premeditated killing.”
District Attorney Mike Waters has said he and his staff were willing to forgo the potential death penalty only if Hargrove pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and thus accepted life without parole. Otherwise, they intended to put the question of his fate to a jury.
Gay’s family after Monday’s sentencing hearing said her soul can rest in peace now that the case has been resolved. “We’re happy that justice has prevailed,” said Alisa Alston, one of her aunts. “We waited so long for this.”
“We’re very family oriented; all we know is each other,” added Diamond Alston, Gay’s cousin. “Losing one, we lost ourselves.”
Monday’s hearing had three preliminary purposes, one being the need for Waters and Assistant District Attorney Melissa Pelfrey to put the basic facts supporting a murder conviction on the record. Hargrove’s defense team likewise got to put on the record any factors it saw as potential mitigation.
The other purpose was to give a chance for Alisa Alston and other family members to speak to Sturges about their loss.
The prosecutors called only one witness, Henderson Police Department Capt. Joseph Ferguson, who testified that Gay worked at the Food Lion as a cashier, and had gone outside for her lunch break and was sitting on a bench when a car pulled up.
A man got out of it, produced a handgun, and shot her in the head from point-blank range.
The car was registered to Hargrove, a Food Lion security camera recorded the crime, and there were “multiple witnesses” to what happened, Ferguson said. Hargrove turned himself in two days later. Members of his family told investigators that Hargrove had called them and told them he’d shot Gay.
Ferguson attested to documentary evidence that included an autopsy report and the file of a domestic-violence case that even before the shooting had Hargrove facing charges of assault on a female and assault with a deadly weapon. He was under a court order that not only said he was stay away from Gay, but that barred him from possessing a firearm.
Hargrove’s lawyers, Jonathan Broun and Elizabeth Hambourger, called to the stand an expert in special education and a clinical neuropsychologist who testified that their client hadn’t received help as a youth that could have turned him off the path that ended with the shooting.
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The special-education expert, Ann Turnbull, said Hargrove had been evaluated for special-education needs as a fourth-grader in the Vance County Schools. He was well behind in reading already, identified as having a learning disability, and should have received counseling and pediatric care.
But “the special education program in Vance County was very weak,” and unless a child’s family could prod school personnel to act, the chances were that he or she would be left behind, Turnbull said.
She added that a state administrator who oversaw special-education programs described the one in Vance as a “hellhole” and one of the worst in North Carolina.
Hargrove was a ninth-grade dropout, and had been suspended for more than 50 days in the eighth grade, Turnbull said, adding that she heard from him that he’d been “showered with love on the street” even as in school he was being bullied.
The neuropsychologist, Samantha Sedlak, said Hargrove didn’t receive any treatment for longstanding problems that included depression. His family lacked the financial means to afford it, or the ability to navigate the complexities of the mental-health system.
Gay and Hargrove were both 23 at the time of the slaying.
Hambourger said the mandatory penalties North Carolina provides for first-degree murder are designed say that the life of the person receiving one of them has no value. She added that Hargrove would have pleaded guilty “a long time ago if he could have a sliver of hope,” but the law “denies him that.”
She also read a letter from Hargrove that offered an apology to Gay’s family, but also indicated that he didn’t feel he should pay for the crime with his life.
Waters responded that Hargrove’s legal team had never asserted a diminished-capacity defense. Their client, he said, “made a choice” and went to the Food Lion knowing she’d be on the bench and that it “was the best place to ambush her.”
The district attorney added that he didn’t think a jury “would have appreciated hearing some” of what was in the apology letter. “We kept hearing, ‘I, I, I’ and ‘I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in prison,’ ” Water said, summarizing.
Gay’s family said afterward they put little value on Hargrove’s apology, especially given that his plea came after the case had lingered so long in the courts.
“Five years taking the family through something like that, that’s very selfish,” said Diamond Alston. “Very.”
Contact Ray Gronberg at email@example.com or by phone at 252-436-2850.