Jurors hear Rock Hill defendant’s interview with detectives

eleland@charlotteobserver.comJune 11, 2013 

In a chilling interview with detectives, Chauncey Sterling described how he stalked hospital executive Robert Barber through a south Charlotte neighborhood two years ago, then shot Barber twice after they struggled over the gun.

“I’m not an evil person,” Sterling told detectives in a voice so soft it was difficult to hear on a recording played Tuesday for jurors in Mecklenburg Superior Court.

Sterling, who was 18 at the time, said he was having trouble finding a job and needed money to support two daughters, ages 1 month and 1 year. He said he intended only to rob someone.

He took his sister’s handgun and walked toward the nearby Caribou Coffee on Fairview Road.

It was Good Friday, April 22, 2011, and Barber happened to go there, too. He had the day off from Carolinas Healthcare Systems and stopped for coffee with his wife. Afterward, she drove on to work and Barber began the nearly three-mile walk home.

Sterling calmly described their fatal confrontation:

He told detectives that he was across the street from Caribou and saw Barber leave. He began following him. When he overtook Barber – on Mullens Ford Road – he drew the gun from his pocket and pointed it at Barber.

“Whoa!” Barber exclaimed and grabbed the barrel.

Sterling said Barber tried to twist the gun toward Sterling.

But Sterling said he pulled it back, out of Barber’s hand.

A moment passed, he said, then Barber came toward him.

Sterling fired.

As Sterling described how he killed her husband, Debbie Barber silently wept on one side of the courtroom; Sterling’s mother, Wanda Jennings, wept on the other.

Toward the end of the recorded interview, a detective pointed out to Sterling that Barber wasn’t his only victim.

“Everybody’s hurting,” the detective said.

Sterling’s confession was recorded shortly before midnight two days after Barber’s death. Detectives arrested him near his mother’s home in Rock Hill, based on tips from his family.

“I want your side of what happened,” Detective Steve Ladd told Sterling. “It’s important. I know the where and the when. I don’t know the why.... Sometimes things happen we don’t mean to happen.”

Sterling is charged with first-degree murder and robbery with a dangerous weapon, but prosecutors decided against seeking the death penalty in part because he cooperated with investigators. He faces up to life in prison.

For two days, Sterling has sat stiffly beside his attorney, wearing wire-rim glasses and a suit jacket. Barber was an unseen presence, often referred to as “the victim.”

In her opening statement, prosecutor Jamie Adams reminded jurors of the person behind that legal designation. She showed them a photograph of Barber smiling and full of life.

She described some of his accomplishments -- business executive, retired colonel in the Air Force Reserve -- and some of his passions -- fast cars and crosswords.

“But,” she said, “what he loved more than that was his wife, Deborah Barber.”

Defense attorney Scott Gsell told the jury that the moment of confrontation between Barber and Sterling is the heart of the trial.

“This case is about a moment, about an instant, about a split second,” Gsell said, and snapped his fingers for effect. “... It’s your job as a jury to find out what happened in that moment.”

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