After serving nearly two decades in prison, former Carolina Panthers wide receiver Rae Carruth on Monday morning left the North Carolina facility that has been his home since he was convicted on charges of planning the murder of Cherica Adams, the mother of his unborn child.

The 44-year-old former NFL player, who was released from the Sampson County Correction Facility in Clinton, N.C. shortly after 8 a.m. Monday, has said he feels “great remorse” for his role in the 1999 drive-by shooting that killed Adams, who was seven months pregnant when she was shot. Their son was born with cerebral palsy as a result of being oxygen deprived during the trauma of the shooting.

“I’m excited about just being out of here,” Carruth told CNN affiliate WSOC days before his release after nearly 18 years in prison. “I’m nervous just about how I’ll be received by the public. I still have to work. I still have to live. I have to exist out there and it just seems like there is so much hate and negativity toward me.”

Carruth did not speak to reporters as he left the prison and got into a white Chevy Tahoe to be driven away. “Rae was picked up by his family this morning and that’s about all we’re going to say right now,” Tiffany Trice, a family friend who said she was with Carruth, told the Charlotte Observer by phone. She added that he did not want to speak or say where he planned to live.

Rae Carruth leaves the Sampson Correctional Institution in Clinton, N.C. (Jeff Siner / The Charlotte Observer via AP)

His lawyer, David Rudolf, told WRAL, that, “Rae was hanging out with people he should not have been hanging out with” at the time of Adams’s killing. He was referring to, among others, Van Brett Watkins, who was convicted of second-degree murder, and also testified against the former NFL player. Prosecutors argued that Carruth hired Watkins to kill Adams because he didn’t want to pay child support; the former receiver was found guilty in January 2001 of conspiracy to commit murder, using an instrument with intent to destroy an unborn child and discharging a firearm into occupied property. Jurors found Carruth not guilty of first-degree murder, but jurors later said they would have convicted Carruth on a second-degree charge, had that been brought against him instead.

The jury’s decision kept the death penalty off the table, paving the way for Carruth’s 18-to-24-year sentence. Watkins will be in prison until at least 2046; he told a Charlotte Observer reporter that he had previously committed four murders in other cities but didn’t disclose specifics. Michael Kennedy, who obtained the gun that was used and drove the car in the drive-by, testified against Carruth and was released in 2011. Stanley Abraham, who was a passenger in the drive-by car, served less than two years and was released in 2001.

On the night of the shooting, Carruth and Adams had gone to see the movie “The Bone Collector,” taking separate cars to the theater. Afterward, with Adams following him, Carruth pulled over and Adams drove up next to him. The car bearing Watkins pulled up next to Adams and bullets were fired as Carruth sped away from the scene. He went to the home of Hannibal Navies, a Panthers teammate, and played video games there. Adams, who delivered her son immediately, lived for about a month after the shooting. Her powerful 911 call, in which she named Carruth as being involved, helped lead to his conviction.

Carruth still claims he wasn’t intending to have Adams killed, but has acknowledged a responsibility for what happened to his former girlfriend. “What he says is, ‘It was my fault. I wasn’t trying to get her killed, but I’m responsible for that in a moral sense,’ and he feels great remorse,” Rudolf, his lawyer, said.

Rudolph said he hopes that Carruth, who also has a now-adult son from a prior relationship, can reach “some sort of reconciliation” with Adams’s son, Chancellor, and with Saundra Adams, the grandmother who has raised him. Carruth earned a barber’s certificate while in prison and has said he plans to return to his home state of California upon his release.

“He’s matured,” Rudolf said. “He’s a lot more introspective than he used to be, and I think he wants to get out of North Carolina."

Last February, Carruth wrote an open letter to Saundra Adams, apologizing for the death of Cherica Adams and for the difficulties Chancellor Adams has had.

“If I could change anything, I’d change the whole situation,” Carruth wrote in the letter, obtained by WBTV. “His mother would still be here and I wouldn’t be where I’m at. So that’s what I’d want to change. I want the incident to never have happened at all.”

Although Carruth wrote of wanting to raise his son, he soon changed his mind, according to the Charlotte Observer.

“For all involved or invested in this ordeal, please calm down,” Carruth wrote the newspaper. “I will no longer be pursuing a relationship with Chancellor and Ms. Adams. I promise to leave them be, which I now see is in everyone’s best interest.”

Saundra Adams told the Observer recently that she hoped to find forgiveness and to move on.

“I want to forgive him so that I can move on and enjoy the fruits of my labor and enjoy my life,” Adams said, “because if I’m sitting around in unforgiveness, it’s like me drinking poison and hoping he’s going to die.”

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