New trials ordered in two North Carolina murder cases

Published 7:30 am Thursday, May 5, 2022

North Carolina’s intermediate appeals court ordered new trials Tuesday for two men convicted separately of first-degree murder, pointing to errors related to admitted evidence and the refusal of a judge to provide testimony transcripts to jurors.

One Court of Appeals panel ruled Tevin Demetrius Vann was entitled to a new trial involving the 2016 death of Ashley McLean, who was found dead inside a Wilmington hotel room. A jury in 2019 found Vann guilty of felony murder of McLean’s unborn child and robbery with a dangerous weapon in addition to Vann’s death.

Another panel ordered a new trial for Travis Davenport, who was convicted of first-degree murder and robbery with a dangerous weapon in the 2016 death of Mike Griffin, who was found stabbed in his face and neck on the floor of his Martin County home.

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Both Vann and Davenport were sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The judges reviewing Vann’s case unanimously agreed that Superior Court Judge Henry Stevens erred when he declined to provide to jurors deliberating the case the opportunity to review trial testimony of Vann, a police detective and the medical examiner.

According to the opinion, Stevens told jurors “it’s your duty to recall their testimony. So you will have to remember that. We’re not – we can’t provide a transcript as to that.”

But the panel said the refusal was prejudicial error against Vann, particularly because his testimony differed from his earlier interrogation with police, in which he admitted to striking McLean and fleeing the hotel room with her cell phone. On the stand, he asserted he did not attack the victim and only previously confessed to avoid being charged with murder.

Vann’s “confession was the only evidence directly linking him to the killing,” Court of Appeals Judge Fred Gore wrote. “Thus, whether the jury believed defendant’s recant of his confession is determinative to the jury’s verdict.”

For Davenport, the judges ruled the trial court was wrong to permit evidence about Davenport’s prior incarceration, gang involvement and tattoos. When taken together, the cumulative evidence that “should have been excluded had a probable impact on the jury’s determination of guilt,” Gore wrote in a separate, unanimous opinion. Gore also reversed the trial court’s refusal to dismiss the robbery count.

Attorneys for the state could seek appeals to the state Supreme Court, but the justices are not obliged to take the cases because Tuesday’s rulings were unanimous.