Sargent murder conviction upheld
by Anna Oakes
Neil Matthew Sargent's conviction and life sentence for the 2005 murder of an Appalachian State University sophomore have been upheld in a N.C. Court of Appeals decision handed down Tuesday.
Sargent was among three men accused in the death of 19-year-old Stephen Harrington, who was found dead and bound in the trunk of his smoldering car in Foscoe, his face duct-taped and body partially burned. A medical examiner determined that Harrington suffocated to death.
Kyle Quentin Triplett and Matthew Brandon Dalrymple are also serving prison terms for their roles in the crime. The investigation revealed that Harrington had traveled to Sargent's Poplar Grove Road residence for a cocaine deal.
Sargent was originally convicted in 2008 of first-degree murder, robbery with a dangerous weapon, first-degree kidnapping and burning of personal property. He successfully appealed his conviction to the N.C. Supreme Court and underwent a retrial before a Watauga County Superior Court jury in fall 2012.
During the retrial, the defense again attempted to paint Triplett as the instigator of Harrington's death. Testimony by Dalrymple supported Sargent's claim.
But the jury returned with another set of guilty verdicts, and a judge sentenced Sargent to life in prison plus 80 to 105 months additional confinement.
A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals heard arguments in the case Oct. 22, 2013.
Sargent's attorney, Michele Goldman, argued that the trial court made procedural errors that compromised Sargent's right to a fair trial, including statements by prosecutors about Sargent's dishonorable discharge from the military and a statement in the prosecution's closing argument discrediting Dalrymple as a witness.
"By offering unchallenged testimony to the jury during its closing, the state was able to strike an unfair blow against Mr. Sargent's most crucial witness," Goldman said in a brief filed last summer.
But in a unanimous decision, the Court of Appeals ruled that the trial court did not err. The prosecution's statements about Dalrymple during its closing argument were supported by evidence presented at the trial, Judge Wanda Bryant wrote in her opinion. And the court deemed as fair game the prosecution's questions about the circumstances leading to Sargent's military discharge -- cocaine use and an assault -- because Sargent testified at length about his positive military service record, the opinion stated.
"A criminal defendant is entitled to introduce evidence of his good character, thereby placing his character at issue. The state in rebuttal can then introduce evidence of defendant's bad character," the opinion stated, citing State v. Roseboro (2000).
"It's an appropriate decision," said District Attorney Jerry Wilson. "Hopefully we're close to having this thing settled. The people I feel sorry for are the families. They have been through so much."
Wilson said because the decision was unanimous, Sargent does not have an automatic right of appeal to the N.C. Supreme Court. Sargent could petition the Supreme Court for writ of certiorari, but Wilson said he is doubtful the court would agree to hear the case because the Court of Appeals decision appears to him to have been based on settled law.
Goldman did not respond to a call seeking comment on Tuesday.
Sargent is currently incarcerated at Brown Creek Correctional Institute in Polkton.
Dalrymple, who pleaded guilty in 2008 to accessory after the fact to first-degree murder, is nearing the end of his sentence and could be released from Gaston Correctional Center this June, according to the N.C. Department of Public Safety.
Triplett pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, kidnapping, armed robbery, burning of personal property and conspiracy to sell or deliver cocaine, and he was sentenced to between 40 years and 50 years, four months in prison. He is being held at Mountain View Correctional Institution in Spruce Pine.