Jurors acquit Greensboro man of murder

After little more than an hour of deliberation, a jury acquitted a Greensboro man Friday of murder for driving the car from which an acquaintance of his shot and killed another man.

Derrick Lamont McMillan, 26, teary-eyed and smiling, hugged his lawyers and his family after hearing the verdict. "It's over, it's over," he said, arms wrapped tightly around his mother.

McMillan was charged with first-degree murder in the alleged aiding and abetting of Kelvin Smith, who shot Chris Peterson from the back seat of McMillan's car after Peterson confronted the two, whom he thought were in his neighborhood to rob him. McMillan said they were there to buy marijuana from Peterson.

Smith, 19, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in exchange for testifying against McMillan.

"Basically, Derrick McMillan is an innocent person who is being prosecuted for the acts of Kelvin Smith," one of McMillan's attorneys, Joel Oakley, told the jury.

Peterson's fiancee, Hazel Forney, declined to comment after the trial. Earlier this year she said, "If they hadn't gotten it into their heads to go do this, my husband would still be here."

Forney had a 4-year-old daughter with Peterson, whose name was tattooed on Peterson's arm. "Her friends have their daddies," Forney said. "She wants to know where her daddy is."

Peterson was shot once in the chest early in the morning of Aug. 23, 2002. McMillan drove three friends - Smith, Jermaine Peeples, 23, and Bernard Townsend, 21 - to Peterson's house after a night of smoking pot, playing cards and going to a strip club.

Assistant District Attorney Frank Chut contended that the four planned to rob Peterson, a known marijuana dealer; McMillan said they went to buy drugs. Smith and Peeples got out of the car, which was parked about a block from Peterson's house.

Peterson spotted the car and told McMillan and Townsend to leave him and his family alone, Forney testified. As Smith and Peeples were walking back to the car, Peterson and his neighbor, Derrick Taylor, told them to get out of the neighborhood, Taylor testified. Smith said Peterson pulled a gun on them, which Taylor denied.
What happened next is in dispute.

Smith testified that Peterson fired at him once he was back in the car and he shot back in self-defense. Taylor said Smith shot first. Smith also said McMillan told him to keep his hand in the car, so the bullet casings wouldn't be left on the street.

"He erupts," McMillan's attorney, Robert O'Hale, said of Smith. "He does what a coward and a loser does - he shoots blindly out of the car and hits Chris Peterson."

The shell casings were clustered together in the middle of the road, which Chut said suggested that McMillan kept his car still, or barely moving, while Smith shot. The shooting also had to last long enough for Peterson to run up the street, where he was finally hit by Smith's bullet, Chut said.

"There's no killing without Derrick," he said. "If this man isn't helping the shooter and steps on the gas, there's no killing."

"We're not going to let this man and his friend start a gunfight in the middle of a residential neighborhood," he said.

The day after the shooting, McMillan contacted Assistant District Attorney Ken Free, an old friend and former basketball coach, and told him Smith killed Peterson.

"He goes in unafraid because he hasn't done anything wrong. He was the one who did the right thing," O'Hale said.

Smith originally told police that Peeples was the shooter and that all four men planned to rob Peterson. Police arrested McMillan and the other two men and charged them all with first-degree murder. Smith has not been sentenced yet. He faces at least 13 years in prison, Chut said.

He said he was not sure how McMillan's acquittal would impact the first-degree murder charge against Peeples, which is pending. Murder charges against Townsend were dropped after a plea agreement with the District Attorney's Office. Chut declined to comment on that case.

Article published in the Grennsboro News and Record

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