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Judge finds Hargrove capable of standing trial in 2017 shooting

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Sep. 13—HENDERSON — Superior Court Judge Cindy Sturges has cleared the way for the first-degree murder trial of Marcus Tyrell Hargrove to resume, ruling him mentally capable of standing trial after she heard testimony from two psychologists.

Both psychologists — James Hilkey and Nancy Laney — testified on Monday that in their opinion Hargrove has the capacity to proceed.

They interviewed him in response to an Aug. 23 incident that interrupted jury selection. Hargrove refused to return to court after a recess, and as Sturges explained on Monday, because he faces a potential death penalty he has to be in the courtroom.

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“In a capital case, there’s no option to have a trial in the defendant’s absence,” Sturges said. “He has to be physically here, is my understanding. It’s an unwaivable right.”

The psychologists both testified that Hargrove doesn’t handle stress well, a problem given that a murder trial of any sort and especially one where the death penalty is a possible outcome is inherently stressful.

Before the Aug. 23 incident, prosecutors, defense lawyers and Sturges had seated four of a required 16 jurors. Twelve people constitute a jury, and four serve as alternates.

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Hargrove is accused of the 2017 homicide of 23-year-old Shaekeya Danielle Gay, who was shot to death outside the Dabney Drive Food Lion in Henderson. Gay had previously sought a domestic-violence protection order against him.

Assistant District Attorney Melissa Pelfrey said she and District Attorney Mike Waters anticipate “a very straightforward case” once testimony begins, without “any twists and turns.”

Hilkey, a former chief of psychology services at the Butner federal prison, testified that Hargrove’s primary ways of dealing with stress in his life are to withdraw, socially, or to “engage in substance abuse.”

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He and Laney, an evaluator at the state’s Butner-based Central Regional Hospital, also indicated that they don’t think Hargrove’s issue is an attempt to manipulate the proceedings.

Rather, “he doesn’t like the bad things that will be said about him in court and he’s concerned about his ability to control his behavior in court,” Laney said.

He nonetheless understands what’s going on, including that there’s “a plea bargain on the table for life without parole,” Laney said.

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Given his need to be at the trial, there is medication that can help him cope, along with a number of other things that psychologists know can help like squeezing a stress ball. Another is taking frequent breaks, but both Sturges and Waters saw problems with that.

A typical trial will see judges order a break in the morning session and another in the afternoon, the sessions themselves sandwiched around an hour-and-a-half lunch sometime around mid-day.

The problem is anything beyond that might require Sturges to send the jury out of the courtroom, a process that’s inherently cumbersome with 16 jurors.

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Given the logistics, “five-minute breaks are not even realistic,” and even 10 minutes is pushing it, Sturges said, adding that while jurors don’t remain in a courtroom when lawyers take time out to confer on points of law, defendants like Hargrove have to stick around for those discussions.

Sturges also voiced worry that what, from the jury’s perspective, might look like frequent unexplained breaks would actually wind up hurting Hargrove’s cause. A frustrated jury can become one that tries to “rush to a verdict” instead carefully deliberating once it comes time to weigh the facts, she said.

Waters, meanwhile, said the case is already running “woefully behind” schedule, given that the jury should have been in place “weeks ago.”

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He added that it’s affecting the schedule for the next case in line, a probable allusion to the re-trial this fall of Lester Kearney, who faces murder charges in connection with a violent Littleton-area home invasion that happened in 2018.

Contact Ray Gronberg at [email protected] or by phone at 252-436-2850.

Contact Ray Gronberg at [email protected] or by phone at 252-436-2850.

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