Rae Carruth, the former NFL star who has spent the last 18 years in prison for masterminding the murder of his pregnant girlfriend, has changed his story about where he was the night she was shot to death.
Carruth, now 44, is scheduled to be released from prison in October. He was convicted of conspiracy but acquitted of first degree capital murder. Jurors believed he hired a hit man to kill Cherica L. Adams and their unborn child, to avoid paying child support.
Carruth did not testify in his own defense at trial, as his lawyer, David Rudolf, told reporters at the time that he didn’t have “a whole lot to add” because “Rae wasn’t there, so he can’t say what happened,” according to the Charlotte Observer, a newspaper in North Carolina.
Now, however, Rudoff told the newspaper, with Carruth’s blessing he said, that Carruth was there.
Carruth and Adams had been driving home in separate cars from a movie date. Carruth was leading; Adams following. According to a 911 call Adams made after being shot, Carruth slowed down, and a third car pulled along side Adams'. That's when Adams’ confessed killer, Van Brett Watkins, opened fire, pulling the trigger four times.
Carruth, through his attorney Rudolf, said he sped off when he saw the car carrying Watkins because he was afraid Watkins might shoot him. Carruth said he had backed out of an agreement to finance a marijuana deal Watkins had asked him to.
“And when he saw Van Brett Watkins pull out and pull up next to Cherica, he took off because he was afraid that Van Brett Watkins was coming to get him,” Rudolf told the Observer. “Instead, Van Brett Watkins shoots Cherica.”
“And then Rae suddenly finds himself in situation where he’s been there; he left. And what’s he going to do? And so he sort of panicked.”
Saundra Adams, Cherica’s mother, told the Observer Tuesday “I don’t believe that. I think it’s another excuse not to be accountable. But none of it is bringing Cherica back.”
Michael Kennedy, who drove the car from which Watkins admitted firing the shots that killed Adams, pleaded guilty to his role and was sentenced to 11 years in prison. He served more than 10 before being released in July 2011, prison records show.
Stanley Abraham was also in the car with Kennedy and Watkins during the shooting. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail and five years probation, according to contemporaneous news reports.
The Carolina Panthers used their 1997 first-round draft pick to select Carruth, a wide receiver. He played in 22 games over three seasons before his arrest, corralling 62 receptions for 804 yards and four touchdowns, according to ESPN.
He was accused by prosecutors in North Carolina of hiring Watkins, Abraham and Kennedy to kill Adams, and then leading her into an ambush on Nov. 16, 1999. Eight months’ pregnant, Adams gave birth by emergency Cesarean section to a baby boy, before slipping into a coma and dying on Dec. 14.
The boy, Chancellor Lee Adams, now 18, was born with cerebral palsy as a result of the violent circumstance of his gunshot-induced birth. He has been raised by Saundra Adams, Cherica’s mother.
Carruth’s three-month-long capital murder trial ended January 2001. It was nationally televised on Court TV and riveted the country from its first day, when the victim spoke from the grave via the recording of the 911 call Adams made, starting with her chilling words, “I’ve been shot.”
“I was following my baby’s daddy, Rae Carruth, the football player. He was in the car in front of me and he slowed down and somebody pulled up beside me and did this.”
When asked by the 911 dispatcher where Carruth was at that moment, Adams answered: “He just left. I think he did it. I don’t know what to think.”
Watkins’ turn on the witness stand was equally dramatic.
He was allowed to avoid the death penalty and plead guilty to second-degree murder in exchange for agreeing testify for the prosecution. But the prosecution never called him.
Instead, he ended up being called as a witness in Carruth’s defense, to show that Watkins -- who had an extensive criminal record, including allegations that he pistol-whipped a man, killed another and threatened to kill two police officers -- had a propensity for violence and shot Adams on his own.
But Watkins’ calm, matter-of-fact admissions about his life of crime and the violence he committed conveyed the overall impression that he was telling the truth, and it may have hurt Carruth more than it helped.
Watkins insisted that Carruth promised him $5,000 and “hired me as a hit man. He hired me to kill Cherica Adams and the baby. I couldn’t bring myself to kill the baby. I shot at the top [of the window, aiming at her head], not through the door [at the baby],” ABC News reported.
''I fired one shot, then four more shots: bam, bam, bam, bam. She was screaming. She was drowning in her own blood. You could hear a gurgling sound,” Watkins testified.
Then the 280-pound Watkins stood up and swore at Carruth: ''Are you happy now?”
But Watkins did admit that he told a jail officer two weeks after shooting Adams “I hope the bitch dies” -- although Watkins said he was referring to Carruth when he said it, pointing at and taunting him, “That’s the bitch I was referring to, who got me into this.”
Sgt. Shirley Riddle, an officer at the jail Watkins was being held in, testified that Watkins told her he shot Adams impulsively because he was mad at Carruth for backing out of a drug deal, and Adams made an obscene gesture at him as he drove beside her car, according to CBS News.
"I just lost it," Watkins said, according to Riddle's testimony. "I lost control and I shot her."
"It was Rae's fault," Riddle also testified Watkins said. "If he had just given us the money, this never would have happened."
Watkins denied saying all those words.
Carruth has worked as a barber in prison, according to WBTV 3, the local CBS affiliate in Charlotte.
He sent a handwritten letter to the station in February, along with a copy of a seperate handwritten letter he sent to Adams’ mother, Saundra.
In that letter, Carruth tells his side of the story of his relationship with Cherica, while making a case that he should have custody of their son, Chancellor, after his release.
"I should be raising my son. His mother should be raising her son," Carruth wrote. "Ms. Adams should not be doing this and I want that responsibility back.”
"I feel like he might not ever have his mother in his life but he could still have me and I could still make a difference and I don't think that's anyone's responsibility when I'm still here."
Later, Carruth called the station and apologized to Saundra “for the loss of her daughter. I'm apologizing for the impairment of my son. I feel responsible for everything that happened. And I just want her to know that truly I am sorry for everything,” WBTV 3 reported.
But Shaundra Adams told the Charlotte Observer in response that, while she’s forgiven Carruth, “he’s not ever going to have custody of Chancellor.” Carruth then told the newspaper that he would no longer pursue “a relationship with Chancellor and Ms. Adams.”
“I promise to leave them be, which I now see is in everyone’s best interest.”
Carruth will be paroled on October 22. Watkins, now 57, is not scheduled to be released until 2046.
[Photo: North Carolina Dept. of Corrections]