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Rae Carruth, Once A Promising NFL Star, To Be Released From Prison

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In recent years, there have been many disturbing stories involving male athletes and the women in their lives. So it may be hard to remember just how shocking it was back in 1999 when Carolina Panthers wide receiver Rae Carruth was charged with orchestrating the murder of his pregnant girlfriend, Cherica Adams.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED DISPATCHER: How'd this happen?

CHERICA ADAMS: I was following my baby's daddy, Rae Carruth, the football player.

UNIDENTIFIED DISPATCHER: Where he at...

ADAMS: He was in the car in front of me, and he slowed down. And somebody pulled up beside me and did this.

MARTIN: Carruth was acquitted of first-degree murder and, thus, avoided the death penalty. But he was convicted of planning the murder carried out by a hitman. Cherica was able to deliver the child, named Chancellor, but she died weeks later. Carruth was sentenced to more than two dozen years in prison. But with time served, he's scheduled to be released tomorrow from Sampson Correctional Institution in Clinton, N.C. Scott Fowler has been covering the story for nearly two decades with The Charlotte Observer, and he's just released a seven-part report in a podcast about Carruth, the murder and the aftermath. It's called "Carruth." And Scott Fowler is with us now from Charlotte. Scott, thanks so much for talking with us.

SCOTT FOWLER: Thank you so much for having me, Michel. I really appreciate it.

MARTIN: Now, it's my understanding that you never talked with him after the murder, but he authorized his attorney to speak with you. It's my understanding, from your reporting, that, to this day, he still denies that he was planning a murder. He says it was a drug deal gone wrong. In essence, he says that he was a coward, not a killer, that he thought that Van Brett Watkins was trying to kill him and he left the scene but that he didn't do anything. Is that about right?

FOWLER: Yes. Van Brett Watkins was the hitman that Carruth hired to commit the murder in a drive-by shooting sort of situation. And Carruth - yes, I have spoken to him on the phone for about 20 minutes but off the record. So it helped inform my reporting some, but it was, ultimately, his attorney who I most recently spoke to for the podcast. That's exactly what he says. It was violent retribution, Van Brett Watkins being angry at Carruth for this drug deal that Carruth had agreed to finance and then backed out of. That was always the defense's argument, but the jury did not buy it.

MARTIN: What does Van Brett Watkins say now?

FOWLER: He absolutely, completely denies the Carruth defense of the drug deal gone wrong. Van Brett Watkins says flat out, I don't beat up no girls. I kill people. And Carruth says then, according to Van Brett Watkins, how much do you charge? And, ultimately, they come up with a price tag of $6,000 to kill Cherica Adams and her unborn child. It is Carruth's child, and the prosecution contended he did it because he did not want to pay child support for another child. He had one son already and was paying $3,000 a month. Of course, he was a millionaire from his NFL salary, but that was the motivation behind it. And Van Brett Watkins, to this day, is very angry with Carruth and says, in fact, that I want him dead. He told me that as well.

MARTIN: Rae Carruth sent a letter to Saundra Adams, who's raising his son, a couple - a lengthy letter. And he released it to a local television station, saying that he would like to have custody of his son. But he's since walked that back. Can you talk to me about that?

FOWLER: So, yes. This happened, actually, in February, where Rae Carruth sent a 15-page letter to a TV station. And in the letter - besides saying, you know, a few things about the night in question in 1999 - he talked about how much he wanted to get to know Chancellor Lee Adams and, in fact, that he wanted to have custody of his son once Saundra Adams died. In fact, in the letter, he said, quote, "come on, Ms. Adams. You know you're not going to be around forever." And that sort of sparked outrage, as you can imagine. Now, he has no real parental rights due to the prison - having been in prison for 19 years now.

MARTIN: Let me play a short clip from your conversation with Saundra Adams, one of the many that you've had with her over the years.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SAUNDRA ADAMS: I'm still feeling forgiving, and I want still for him to meet his son. But I do want him to feel the effects of what he did because that's what I've been looking at every day since November 16, 1999.

MARTIN: I should mention that Chancellor has multiple disabilities owing to the circumstances of his birth, I mean, the fact that his mother was short - was shot four times, the fact that he was, you know, deprived of oxygen, the fact that he was born several weeks, prematurely. Nevertheless, you said that she really made a big impression on you. I know that you've mentioned this several times, that Saundra Adams has really had a big impact on you. Tell us about that.

FOWLER: She has - honestly, I mean, the love that she has for her disabled grandson is about as pure a love as I've ever come in contact with. I've been doing this a long time now, and she is inspirational. And one reason for the Carruth podcast was because I wanted more people to hear her voice. It's one thing to see it in print. But when you hear someone talking about forgiveness for the four men who conspired to kill your daughter, it's powerful.

MARTIN: Well, in fact, that's kind of where I want to end up here, which is - after spending all this time following this young man, you know, the highs, the lows and the impact that he had on this family's life, did you ever come up with a sense of why? Why did this happen to begin with?

FOWLER: My only theory is that he wasn't used to being told he couldn't do something. In the court testimony, it came out that he had impregnated another woman at one point and had threatened her and kind of pressured her to get an abortion. And that one - and she did, and that worked out. And then, he had had this other son for five years before. And then, Cherica Adams was absolutely adamant that she was going to have this baby. I do not think he enjoyed being told no at any point in his life. And so that's the only - I guess, you know, there's far more to it, certainly, than just that. But I think that's - part of it is that, you know, athletes have to learn that no means no just like the rest of us need to learn it. And it's a lesson that I think pro sports is trying to teach but still has a long way to go.

MARTIN: That's Scott Fowler of The Charlotte Observer. He's produced a seven-part podcast and printed series called "Carruth" about Rae Carruth, who is released from prison tomorrow. Scott Fowler, thanks for joining us.

FOWLER: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.