GREENSBORO — Thirty years ago, a Greensboro man disappeared during his trial on drug charges.
John Earl Sturdivant, 72, who turned himself in last year, was sentenced Monday to seven years in prison in Guilford County Superior Court.
That’s dramatically less time than the 35-year sentence he received last year, after which he appealed his conviction. At his age, that’s essentially a life sentence.
Caught by undercover police officers with more than 400 grams of cocaine, about 14 ounces, Sturdivant was arrested in August 1988.
On the second day of his trial — March 10, 1989 — he was nowhere to be found.
And it stayed that way.
Sturdivant was convicted without his presence in the courtroom.
The judge then left his sentencing open until he could be found.
That moment happened when he showed up at a police department in January 2018 to face his conviction.
That March, Superior Court Judge Anderson Cromer sentenced Sturdivant to 35 years in prison.
Sturdivant appealed his conviction, and in June the N.C. Court of Appeals overturned his sentencing because the court reporter from 1989 had accidentally destroyed the trial transcript.
“The appeals court noted that he was denied his due process rights,” said Steve Cole, the chief assistant district attorney for Guilford County.
Cole said all of the officers involved in Sturdivant’s case are still alive, and many are still in the area.
And the drugs are still in an evidence vault, Cole told Judge Lois Trosch Jr.
“It must be pretty dusty,” Trosch said, laughing.
Cole said prosecutors in 1989 used a drug informant and made a deal with a co-defendant for less prison time if he testified against Sturdivant. The state wasn’t sure about the willingness of either participant to cooperate 30 years later.
And in those 30 years, Sturdivant avoided any other trouble and stayed off law enforcement’s radar until he turned himself in, both Cole and Sturdivant’s attorney, Wayne Baucino, a public defender, noted.
“He wouldn’t have been found,” Baucino said.
Sturdivant wanted to go back to prison, Baucino said, because he has cancer and his treatment stopped when he left the N.C. Department of Corrections after he won his appeal.
“He wants to go back ... to finish his treatment,” Baucino said.
Trosch said he was satisfied with the agreement Cole and Baucino had reached.
Because Sturdivant was sentenced under the state Fair Sentencing Act, which expired in 1994, his time in prison is expected to be cut to 31/2 years, Baucino said, and he has 18 months credit for the time he served in prison between turning himself in and his new sentencing Monday.
“Mr. Sturdivant, hopefully you will serve some period long enough to get your treatment and get out,” Tosch said.