CHARLOTTE — Debbie Barber faced her husband’s murderer in court Thursday and told Chauncey Sterling of Rock Hill that he not only robbed the world “of a special man,” he also robbed his own mother and his two little girls of the rest of his life.
“I consider this a loss for all of us,” she said. “You robbed him of his life. You robbed (our) future together. I feel awfully bad for your family – your mother and your children – because you robbed them of yourself. I hope you can ask your God to forgive you.”
When Superior Court Judge Lisa Bell announced the mandatory sentence for Robert Barber’s murder – life without the possibility of parole – a deputy cuffed Sterling’s hands behind his back. His sister cried out in anguish and was escorted from the courtroom.
Sterling, 20, looked toward the ceiling to hold back his tears, but he couldn’t. He asked a deputy to remove his eyeglasses for him. Then he craned his head around the deputy and whispered to his mother: “I love you.”
At her son’s words, Wanda Jennings wailed uncontrollably. “No!” she cried.
On the other side of the courtroom, members of Barber’s family wept.
After four days of emotional testimony, it took the jury about an hour to convict Sterling of attempted robbery and first-degree murder.
He shot Barber on April 22, 2011, on Mullens Ford Road in south Charlotte, using a gun he stole from his sister’s house. The crime in a residential neighborhood, in broad daylight, on a holiday, shocked the community. Barber, 64, was walking home from a coffee shop on Fairview Road, enjoying a day off from Carolinas HealthCare Systems, where he had worked for 20 years.
Sterling, who lived in Rock Hill, told detectives he was looking for someone to rob, saw Barber walking alone, followed him for several blocks and pulled out a gun when he got close behind him.
Sterling testified Wednesday that he felt conflicted about robbing Barber and changed his mind. But, at that moment, he said Barber turned around and grabbed the gun. Sterling said he pulled the gun back and Barber lunged at him. Sterling fired two shots.
Lawyers on both sides focused in closing arguments Thursday on a central question: Did Sterling intend to commit armed robbery when he shot Barber?
Prosecutor Clayton Jones argued that Sterling had been planning to rob someone because he couldn’t find a job and needed money to help support his daughters. Jones said Sterling did not tell the truth on the stand when he testified that he changed his mind.
“When Barber turned around ... an arm’s length away ... the crime of attempted robbery is committed,” Jones said. “The only reason he wasn’t able to take money from Mr. Barber is because Mr. Barber grabbed the barrel.”
Defense attorney Scott Gsell disagreed. He said Sterling told the truth in his confession and there was no reason to doubt that he told the truth in court.
“Before he could turn around and run, Mr. Barber turned around,” Gsell told jurors. “What Chauncey told you all is that he did not have intent at that moment. … It is an incredibly fine line.”
Felony murder rule
Sterling was tried under the felony murder rule, which is based on 16th-century English common law. It holds that any death committed during the perpetration of certain felonies, or attempted felonies, with the use of a deadly weapon, is first-degree murder. Robbery is among those felonies; others include arson, rape, kidnapping and burglary.
To find him guilty of first-degree murder, the jury first had to find him guilty of attempted robbery.
Jones suggested in his cross-examination of Sterling Thursday morning that he may have tailored his testimony to fit the felony murder rule. When Sterling was interrogated two days after killing Barber, he didn’t mention any indecision to detectives. “Back when you gave that interview, you didn’t know what the felony murder rule was?” Jones asked Sterling.
“But you know what it is now?”
Gsell sought to portray Sterling as a good, honest teenager who made a fatal mistake.
Jones countered that image with photographs from Sterling’s Facebook page, one of which showed him wearing a bandana and holding his hands in what he testified was the “F-U” sign.
“Mr. Sterling, these are gang signs, aren’t they?” Jones asked.
“You’re a gang member?”
“No, I’m not.”
‘A choice he made’
Jones asked Sterling to show jurors how he snuck up behind Barber with a gun. Sterling held up the weapon he used to shoot Barber and, with his hand visibly shaking, pointed the 9-millimeter handgun. Only a few inches separated the end of the barrel from Jones’ back.
Jones then turned around and faced Sterling. “You’re face to face with him at this distance with the gun pointed at him?” Jones asked.
Jones later told jurors, “That was a choice he made over a period of time ... a choice he made that he could have undone.”
It was a choice that will haunt many families for years to come.
“Two years, two months, three days ago, you murdered my brother,” Betty Barber told Sterling. “You robbed Debbie of her future. ... He won’t ever see his grandchildren. You put your mother and sister in the horrible position of possibly having to testify against you. And you robbed your children. We hurt, and we will hurt for a long time because of your actions.”