A vanished cellphone may have spared Eric "Teddy" Adams a life prison sentence for the execution-style murder of 15-year-old Christine Marcelin in 2012, but it caught up with him on Tuesday.
Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Tracey Flemings-Davillier placed heavy emphasis on the potential impact of Adams’ missing white iPhone on the investigation into Marcelin's brutal slaying as she handed Adams a 20-year prison sentence for obstruction of justice.
It was the lone charge for which a jury convicted Adams, 24, after a weeklong trial in August. The jury acquitted Adams on charges of second-degree murder, second-degree kidnapping and conspiracy to commit murder.
He faced a maximum 40-year sentence on the obstruction count, with no minimum.
Police and prosecutors alleged that Adams shot and killed Marcelin, an eighth-grader at KIPP Believe Charter Prep, in a retaliatory assault three days after his younger brother, 15-year-old Brandon Adams, was slain in the Desire neighborhood. Brandon Adams and Marcelin were classmates.
Marcelin went to Adams' mother's house to offer her condolences to the family but then disappeared. A homeless man stumbled upon her body the next day in the 5500 block of Alcee Fortier Boulevard, a remote area of New Orleans East. The teen had been shot 10 times, with nine bullet wounds to the head and neck.
A pathologist, gauging the trajectory, testified that Marcelin appeared to have been kneeling on the ground, her hands clasped under her chin, when the gunman stood over her and fired.
Prosecutors with District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro's office argued that Adams stymied detectives who came armed with search warrants for his iPhone — first by giving them a "dummy" phone and then by misleading them about the real phone, which police never recovered. Adams' family members also gave conflicting accounts from the witness stand about what happened to the phone.
Prosecutors Alex Calenda and Irena Zajickova argued that Adams went still further, citing "strong circumstantial evidence" that he helped keep a key witness from testifying against him through a death threat.
The trial featured wrenching testimony from the mothers of both victims. With little physical evidence, however, the jury was left to weigh the credibility of two men who said they heard Adams boast about the killing in jail, saying he believed Marcelin had set up his brother's murder.
Those witnesses and two others who did not testify against Adams claimed he admitted getting rid of his and Marcelin's cellphones, according to prosecutors.
Prosecutors alleged that Adams offered Marcelin a ride home from his family's house after her visit that evening, then drove her to New Orleans East and killed her. During the trial, however, Adams' mother testified that Marcelin left with someone else whose identity she didn't know.
Cannizzaro's office sought the 40-year maximum for Adams. His attorneys, Gregory Carter and John Fuller, asked the judge to sentence Adams to 10 years in prison and suspend five of those years.
Flemings-Davillier said she settled on 20 years to account for both the jury's acquittal of Adams on the other charges, and the nagging questions left unanswered by the phone's disappearance.
"I question why he would go to the extent he went to, numerous different times, to hide this particular cellphone," the judge said. "I am led to believe there's more to the story. At some point that cellphone should have been produced by someone, and it wasn't, and that is very troubling to me."
Adams, wearing orange jail scrubs and shackled at the wrists and ankles, stared silently after the judge announced his sentence.
"I'm just glad he's not able to do this to anybody else," Marcelin's mother, Tyese Cook, said afterward. "Maximum or not, it's not justice. No sentence ever would be. She's dead. She's not here. I miss her."
Cook said she "kinda lost faith" in the justice system when the jury returned its verdicts but that she was grateful to Flemings-Davillier.
"She saw that it was something wrongfully done to my child by a whole family she trusted," Cook said, "because her trust in them caused her demise."
Carter, the defense attorney, called the 20-year sentence "certainly not what we were hoping for," but he said Adams is glad to put the allegations behind him.
"He's looking forward to serving his time and getting back to his family," Carter said.
Adams still has one pending charge: a sexual battery count related to a 2015 incident in the Orleans Parish jail. No trial date has been set.