Investigators have said they believe Carson - of Athens, GA - was taken from near her Chapel Hill home on the morning of March 5, 2008. The 22-year-old was driven around in her SUV to various ATMs in Chapel Hill and Durham where money was taken from her bank account.
According to an autopsy report, she was later shot five times and dumped in a street.
Atwater and an alleged accomplice - Laurence Lovette - both face state charges in the case. In addition, federal prosecutors filed carjacking and weapons charges against Atwater. He could have faced the death penalty in that case, and the trial was set to start in May.
Now, Anna Mills Wagoner, United States Attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina, says Atwater has reached a plea deal. He's pleaded guilty to carjacking resulting in death, kidnapping resulting in death, carrying and using firearms during and in relation to carjacking and kidnapping resulting in death, possession of firearms by a convicted felon, and possession of a short-barreled shotgun.
Wagoner said Carson's family was on board with the plea deal.
"While we deplore the evil and negligence that led to Eve's death, we agree with the U.S. Attorney's decision to accept the plea agreement. We are very grateful for the dedication and hard work that have gone into the investigation and prosecution of this crime," read a written statement from the family.
They declined further comment.
"Eve Carson’s murder was a senseless, random act of violence. Today’s plea spares Ms. Carson’s family and friends the uncertainty and pain of a drawn-out trial and endless appeals,” said Wagoner. "We hope this resolution will help the Carson family put this horrendous act behind them, as best they can, and move on with their lives."
The death penalty is now off the table and Atwater has agreed to a life sentence.
"A life sentence in the federal criminal justice system means just that: life without the possibility of parole or early release," said Wagoner in a news release.
But the possibility of the death penalty still looms over Atwater, as the state's capital case against him continues for now.
"The federal charges were totally different than the state charges," Orange County DA Jim Woodall said. "Federal charges weren't homicide charges, so the state charges still stand and we still go forward with those."
What isn't clear is whether Carson's parents also want the state to avoid a drawn out trial.
Atwater could return to the Orange County courthouse sometime next week for a hearing on the state murder charges.
"Our case is still going forward as it always was, I think we may have hearing in this case," Woodall said.
Woodall stopped short of saying whether a plea deal is in the works in the state case against Atwater and Lovette.
Lovette's age makes him ineligible for the death penalty, but he's facing a double murder rap in both Orange and Durham counties. Prosecutors are already making plans for his upcoming trial.
Atwater will appear in Orange County Superior Court on May 24. He is scheduled to be sentenced in federal court on September 23.
A date for the state trial for Lovette has not yet been set.