Slowly and in a soft voice, Kevin Golphin would relive that September day when he and his older brother, Tilmon Golphin, would end the watch of a state Highway Patrol trooper and a Cumberland County sheriff’s deputy during a traffic stop along Interstate 95.
Kevin Golphin, by his own admission, is a killer who is serving two life sentences for murdering Trooper Ed Lowry and Deputy David Hathcock on that day that would stun law enforcement and a community. So is Tilmon Golphin, who is serving two life sentences without the possibility of parole.
But Kevin Golphin is a changed man from that Sept. 23, 1997, day of crime that began in Kingstree, South Carolina, and ended in the death of a 47-year-old patrolman and a 57-year-old deputy by two teenagers.
“I am very sorry I took those officers’ lives,” Kevin Golphin, 42, would say on the final day of a three-day re-sentencing hearing at the Judge E. Maurice Braswell Cumberland County Courthouse, where a team of New York defense lawyers argued for Kevin Golphin’s eligibility for parole.
Dixie Lowry Davis, 70, the widow of the slain patrolman, her daughter, relatives and five state troopers sat in the courtroom, their eyes trained on Golphin and his words of remorse.
“I just want to let the family know I made a mistake, a tragic mistake,” Golphin said. “I know I caused you a lot of pain. Ya’ll have the right never to forgive me, and I hope one day you’ll find it in your heart to forgive me.”
Kevin Golphin and Tilmon Golphin, who grew up in Chesterfield County outside of Richmond, Virginia, were convicted in 1998 and sentenced to death. Kevin Golphin’s sentences later were commuted to life without parole because of his age of 17 at the time of the murders. Tilmon Golphin’s death sentences were commuted in 2012 to life without parole as a result of the Racial Justice Act.
Kevin Golphin is incarcerated at the Bertie Correctional Institution in Windsor. Before that, he was at Central Prison in Raleigh where Tilmon Golphin serves his time.
Kevin Golphin, according to testimony during the hearing, was not always a model prisoner. He had countless disciplinary infractions, including masturbation in the presence of a female prison guard and plans to escape with another inmate. He was in solitary confinement for the better part of 10 years, according to testimony.
He has become a model inmate since 2014, defense lawyers Eamon Joyce and Christina Prusak Chianese argued, and they brought in Dr. James Hilkey, a forensic psychologist from Chapel Hill, to support their arguments.
“There has been substantial change,” said Hilkey, who also testified that Kevin Golphin was a youngster with behavioral issues because of a neglectful mother. “His behavior has substantially improved.”
Kevin Golphin reads self-improvement books in prison, Hilkey said, and volunteers to take on prison work assignments.
“He made a conscious decision to rectify his life,” Hilkey testified. “It gives me hope for future adjustments. It’s maturity. He’s thoughtful and reflective. It’s genuine. He talks about the two Kevins. He has night terrors of what happened to Officer Lowry and Deputy Hathcock. He accepted responsibility and has remorse.”
The stop, in Kevin Golphin’s words
Kevin Golphin testified that neither he nor his brother planned to kill Lowry or Hathcock after the trooper pulled over Kevin Golphin for a seatbelt violation hours after the brothers had held up a loan office in Kingstree and escaped in an employee’s Toyota Camry.
“The plan was to steal the car and go to Richmond and rob the Food Lion where I use to work,” Kevin Golphin told Rob Thompson, the senior assistant district attorney for Cumberland County. “We’d get enough money to go to Petersburg, Florida, and leave the country.”
Kevin Golphin acknowledged the plan was his and not his brother’s.
Lowry seated Kevin Golphin in his cruiser, according to testimony, and communicated to dispatch about the stop. That’s when he learned the Toyota Camry was stolen. That, Kevin Golphin testified, is when the patrolman ordered him at gunpoint out of the cruiser.
“I asked him what was I going to jail for,” he testified. “He slammed my head on the hood of the car. He put his gun back in his holster. He pulled out his handcuffs. I didn’t want to do nothing. I left my hands on the hood of the car. He repeated the order. He grabbed me and placed me in a chokehold. There was pressure on my neck. He pushed me to the ground. I heard my neck pop. He applied pressure. I told him, ‘I can’t breathe.’ He told me to shut up.”
He testified that when Hathcock arrived, Lowry told the deputy to get Tilmon Golphin out of the stolen car and then to pepper-spray Kevin Golphin for resisting arrest.
“My eyes were burning,” Kevin Golphin testified. “I started coughing. I heard gunshots after that. After the gunshots, I turned to look. I see Hathcock going down. I was discombobulated. I would open and close my eyes. I remember grabbing Ed Lowry’s gun. I discharged a bullet from his gun. I remember shooting down at him. I tripped over Deputy Hathcock, and shooting him.”
Kevin Golphin testified he believed his brother was being harmed or injured.
By day’s end on Sept. 23, 1997, a patrolman and a deputy were dead and Kevin and Tilmon Golphin were in the Cumberland County jail charged with murder.
‘This family has been through enough’
On Wednesday, Thompson stood for the fallen lawmen and their families.
“As Mrs. Lowry said, no family should ever have to go through this,” Thompson told the judge. “I’m suggesting life without the possibility of parole for shooting Trooper Lowry and Deputy Hathcock. The defendant, with all due respect, is not entitled. Twelve jurors heard (the case at trial) and imposed the harshest penalty. You should consider, your honor, the jury has spoken. They shot two police officers when they were dying on the ground. The reason families don’t come for cases like this is because they respect the law to take care of it in the courts. This family has been through enough.”
Thompson also submitted a letter into evidence from Col. Freddy Johnson Jr., commander of the N.C. Highway Patrol and a Cumberland County native who was just beginning his Highway Patrol career in 1997.
“Almost 25 years have passed since the calculated actions of Kevin Golphin on September 23rd 1997 took the lives of two dedicated public servants, but for those a part of the Lowry family and our Patrol family the daily reminders of that great loss are ever present,” Johnson wrote to the judge on April 8. “Ed Lowery, the husband, father, grandfather, brother and community leader, has been missing from every holiday, graduation, birth and Patrol event. He was taken from us due to the actions of another and that can never be undone. These daily reminders of his loss do not grow easier with time, but even more arduous with each new memory we are without him being a part of us.
“It is my intent that this letter serves more than a letter of support for those affected by the calloused actions of a killer Kevin Golphin and not a continual condemnation of him. The loss of Sgt. Ed Lowery is one that will continue to be present, the burdens laid upon his family's feet are carried daily and an equitable burden should be matched daily with a continued prison sentence by the one who made his loss a reality. In support of the family and on behalf of the North Carolina State Highway Patrol, it is respectfully asked that in the matter of Kevin Golphin he receive consecutive sentences of life without parole.
“Your time and attention to this matter are greatly appreciated personally,” Johnson wrote, “but also by the men and women of the State Highway Patrol and the brave professionals who answer a calling to serve their communities as law enforcement officers.”
Joyce, the lead defense lawyer for Kevin Golphin, argued otherwise, citing Miller vs. Alabama, a ruling in 2012 by the U.S. Supreme Court that a juvenile cannot be sentenced to life in prison without eligibility for parole.
“He should be re-sentenced to life with the possibility of parole,” Joyce told the judge. “Mr. Golphin did have the lead role in this crime. But Tilmon Golphin fired the first fatal shots. Tilmon Golphin blew this out of proportion, including Kevin’s reaction. The gentleman sitting next to me has changed. Mr. Golphin is remorseful for his crimes and showed empathy to the families. I ask for a re-sentence of life with parole. To do otherwise violates the U.S. Constitution and the North Carolina Constitution.”
Lock, the Superior Court judge from Johnston County, said at the outset of the re-sentencing hearing he would listen to the testimony and evidence “with an open mind,” and he would rule fairly.
By day’s end Wednesday, the judge ruled.
“The court has considered the factors and circumstances, including the defendant fired multiple shots” while officers lay on the ground, Lock said. “The court finds the defendant should be sentenced to life without parole.”
From Kevin Golphin, there was little emotion.
Joyce offered notice of appeal.
“Judge Lock, as he always does, gave both sides a fair hearing and we are pleased with his decision,” Thompson said. “We hope that it can provide the family and all those impacted by these atrocious crimes some level of closure, and some measure of finality.”
A weary Dixie Lowry Davis had a final word as she left the courtroom.
“There are no winners here,” she said. “But I will say I feel better he will not walk free. I hope he will get all of the help he needs. But I do think law enforcement got something today.”
Trooper Ed Lowry and Deputy David Hathcock, too.
“Until the next time,” Al Lowry, the 69-year-old brother of Ed Lowry, said of any further appeals.
Bill Kirby Jr. can be reached at email@example.com or 910-624-1961.