Neil Sargent found guilty of murder
Neil Matthew Sargent was found guilty of first-degree murder on Thursday morning, seven years to the day after his 19-year-old victim was found bound in the trunk of a smoldering car in Foscoe.
The jury of nine women and three men also found Sargent, 31, guilty of first-degree kidnapping, robbery with a dangerous weapon and burning of personal property.
Judge James Downs sentenced Sargent to the remainder of his natural life in prison without parole for the murder. He also received 80 to 105 months in prison for the three other felonies combined.
It's the same result Sargent faced during his original trial in 2008. At that time, the judge refused to admit a certain piece of evidence from the defense, and Sargent’s successful appeal earned him the new trial, which began Oct. 29.
Amid the sobs of his mother and other family members, Sargent addressed the court during sentencing Thursday.
"Over the last seven years, I've kind of been wanting to tell my side of the story," Sargent said after a long pause. "And what I told is the truth, but the law and how it's structured, I was found guilty of first-degree murder for my role in the death of Stephen Harrington.”
Sargent said not a day goes by that he doesn’t wish he had done something differently that might have saved the ASU sophomore’s life.
"I just want the family to know that I'm really sorry that I didn't do more to try to help their son,” he said.
The eight-day trial hinged on the credibility of testimony from the only living people who knew exactly what happened that night: Sargent, Matthew Brandon Dalrymple and Kyle Quentin Triplett.
The state offered about 150 exhibits but little in the way of direct evidence — fingerprints, DNA samples, independent witnesses and the like.
With such information unavailable or not presented, both the prosecution and defense relied heavily on sworn testimony from the three men and from their previous statements to police.
From the witness stand, none of the three came across as particularly trustworthy. All admitted to heavy use of mind-altering drugs, and all admitted that they had either lied or withheld information from police at some point after the incident.
With so many parties involved, the trial was non-linear and often complicated. At times, even the attorneys mixed up the names of the defendants to which they were referring.
In his closing arguments Wednesday, defense attorney Mark Killian urged the jurors to use their common sense in untangling the information and deciding who to trust.
He worked to demonstrate that Dalrymple’s testimony — which primarily blamed Triplett and not Sargent — was reliable and tried to cast doubt in jurors’ minds that law enforcement had done a thorough and effective job investigating the crime.
He also tried to show that Triplett had reason to murder Harrington, saying that Triplett owed money to Sargent.
“It all boils down to, folks, who do you believe?” Killian said.
Assistant District Attorney Britt Springer, who prosecuted alongside District Attorney Jerry Wilson, said in her closing arguments that it was Sargent who had the motive. He was broke and wanted Harrington’s cocaine, she said.
Springer argued that Triplett’s statement was the most believable, as he was the only one to show remorse for his actions. She said Sargent had had seven years to “think of the perfect excuse.”
“You’ve got to pick out where all the finger-pointing leads to,” Springer said to the jury.
After deliberating for about four hours Wednesday and Thursday — occasionally asking questions of the judge or asking to see certain items — the jury delivered its unanimous verdict around 11 a.m. Thursday.
Sargent will now rejoin Dalrymple and Triplett in the N.C. Department of Corrections system.
Dalrymple, who pleaded guilty to accessory after the fact to first-degree murder, is most of the way through his 100- to 129-month sentence.
Triplett, who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, kidnapping, armed robbery, burning of personal property and conspiracy to sell or deliver cocaine, was sentenced to between 40 years and 50 years, four months in prison.
After the verdict, Killian lamented the suffering not only of Harrington but of the three other young men and all the families involved.
In addition to Harrington’s mother, father and sister, the courtroom audience included Sargent’s mother, siblings and other family. Triplett’s mother also sat through most of the trial.
“It’s a cautionary tale of what happens when young folks get involved with illegal drugs,” Killian said.
The victim's father, Raymond Harrington, also addressed the court with words of thanks to the District Attorney's Office and to his wife and daughter.
He said the family would return home not in celebration but continuing to digest the events and trying to move forward.
"We're glad to be through this very long, very painful process," Harrington said.
The process may not be over, though, as Killian gave notice that he intends to appeal. He did not describe the grounds for his appeal in court Thursday.