Crawley trial underway
Denita M. Smith. Echo file photo
Angela Ashby, Durham County forensics technician, points to crime scene items including shoes, keys, and personal effects at a Campus Crossings stairwell. Ashley Griffin/Echo staff photographer
Greensboro police officer Jermeir Stroud. Stroud was Denita Smith’s fiancée in 2007 when she was murdered. Ashley Griffin/Echo staff photographer
A collage of Denita Smith from her Jan. 11, 2007 funeral. Courtesy of the Denita Smith familiy
It's been just over three years since N.C. Central University student Denita Monique Smith was shot and killed outside her Campus Crossings apartment just after 8 a.m. on January 4, 2007.
Smith, a graduate student at the time of the shooting, was 25 years old. According to forensics testimony, she was shot in the back of the head from a distance of about two feet.
At the time, police investigators described Smith's shooting as "planned and personal."
At the time of her death, Smith was engaged to be married to Jemeir Stroud, an NCCU alumnus and Greensboro police officer. The two met at NCCU and had dated since 2000, her freshman year.
After a number of delays, the trial of her accused murderer, Shannon Elizabeth Crawley, is now underway.
In his opening statement, Durham Assistant District Attorney David Saaks said, "Denita was on top of the world. She was a graduate student, she was well-respected on campus, she had pledged [a sorority], her family loved her … and she was engaged to be married."
"And then she gets a bullet to the back of the head and ends up on the bottom of a stairwell."
Smith's body and scattered personal items were found at around 10 a.m. by Campus Crossings resident Cory Daniels.
Daniels testified that he thought Smith had fallen down the stairwell from the third to the ground floor.
"I called 911," he testified.
"I shook her shoulder and said ‘Baby girl are you OK?'"
Smith had accrued a remarkable set of accomplishments while at NCCU. As an undergraduate she was an Eagles Scholar, a member of Sigma Tau Delta International English Honors Society, a saxophonist with the Sound Machine, and a member of the Worship and Praise Inspirational Mass Choir.
She had been a reporter and staff photographer for the Campus Echo, earning a fellowship at the prestigious New York Times Student Journalism Institute.
Smith earned her undergraduate degree in 2004. As a graduate student in English, she was working on her master's thesis on the expression of black identity in the work of Richard Wright and Tupac Shakur.
She mentored undergraduate students in the Writing Studio, was still contributing news stories to the Campus Echo, and had recently crossed to the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.
The shooting shocked the NCCU community.
"For anyone who knows Denita, sadness will be in the air," said Gerard Farrow, a Campus Echo A&E editor who worked with Smith.
"It's so sad," said Bruce dePyssler, Campus Echo adviser. "She was doing everything right."
At a memorial held at B.N. Duke after her Jan. 11 funeral the Rev. Michael Page, of Campus Ministry, put the University's grief like this: "Our hearts are numb. And our minds are confused."
In his opening statements, Saacks argued that Shannon Crawley, a 911 operator in Greensboro, drove to Durham alone on Jan. 3 to locate Smith's apartment and again on Jan. 4 to murder Smith. He argued that she was driven by the "deadly sin" of "envy."
In his testimony Smith's fiancé, Jermeir Stroud, said that he had been in overlapping relationships with Smith and Crawley, but that the relationship with Crawley had ended in 2005 after she had an abortion.
"I never told Denita about Shannon," he said on the stand.
"It was out of immaturity. I didn't want to put this on her."
In opening statements, Crawley's defense attorney, Scott Holmes, argued that Stroud coerced Crawley to ride with him to Durham on Jan. 3 and on Jan. 4, 2007.
He said that on Jan. 4, Stroud threatened to harm Crawley's two children, a son who is now 11 and a daughter who is now 9.
"Shannon Crawley was not on top of the world," Holmes said.
"She was under the influence of a controlling Mr. Jemeir Stroud. And she couldn't handle it."
Holmes argued that Stroud shot and killed his fiancée while Crawley was in the car.
Durham homicide investigator Shawn Pate testified that Crawley, in a Jan. 5 interview the day after the shooting, said she had never been in Durham, just "through" Durham.
He testified that she changed her story in a May 8, 2007 interview in which she said that she had been to Durham both days with Stroud.
Michael Hedgefield, a Campus Crossings maintenance man, testified that he first saw a black woman running "from an unusual direction" at the apartments.
Hedgefield said he spoke to the woman while she was driving off in a burgundy Explorer SUV at about 8:30 a.m.
He said she was distraught and crying and that he did not see anyone else in the car with the woman. His description of the car led detectives to Crawley.
At the time of the shooting and in court, the maintenance man said he could not positively identify the woman he spoke to.
According to Hedgefield's testimony, the woman said she was frightened by gunfire and that she lived at Campus Crossing.
Hedgefield testified that he had never seen the woman in the apartment complex.
Stroud, Smith's fiancé, testified that he had last seen Crawley a week or so before the shooting, pointing at him and Smith at his church in Greensboro.
Cell phone records provided in court indicated that on Jan. 3, Crawley's phone had been used by a cell phone tower about one mile from Campus Crossings and by towers between Greensboro and Durham.
On the day of the shooting, records for Crawley's cell phone indicate calls made at 5:50 a.m. in Greensboro and later at 9:40 a.m. in Greensboro.
Campus Crossings key-usage records that indicate when individuals enter and leave their apartments show that Smith left her apartment at 8:10 a.m.
Crawley's 911 supervisor testified that Crawley was scheduled to work at 7 a.m. the day of the shooting, but clocked in after 10 a.m., saying that she had taken her children to a doctor's appointment.
As of yesterday, no testimony had been provided to the jury documenting Crawley's claim that she was at a doctor's appointment.
A state forensics witness testified that gunshot residue was lifted from the driver's side of Crawley's SUV, and a co-worker of Crawley's has testified that Crawley bought a .38 mm handgun from him several weeks before the shooting after Crawley told him the her house had been broken into numerous times.
According to state forensics testimony, a .38-caliber bullet was recovered from Smith's body. Stroud testified that the handguns he uses as a police officer are both .40 caliber.
During the course of the ongoing trial, several defense motions to suppress evidence have been denied by the superior court judge.
These include a motion to suppress the Jan. 5 interview with Crawley and accusations made by Crawley that Stroud had raped her in June 2008 in Charlotte while she was out on bail.
These charges were dropped when cell phone records and a restaurant receipt showed that Stroud was in Greensboro, not Charlotte, at the time.
Click here to view the Photojournalism of Denita Monique Smith (2002-2004)
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