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Courage of their convictions

North Carolina's death-penalty sweepstakes may claim another unlucky winner on Jan. 24. The latest entry is Henry Lee Hunt, scheduled to die for a pair of 1984 murders in Robeson County. Hunt's case involves a fundamental problem that bothers all but the most rabid supporters of capital punishment: He may well be innocent.

Not many death-row inmates can seriously argue their innocence, but as case after case across the country has so convincingly proven, innocent people do get sentenced to death. An examination of the record indicates that Hunt's claim has merit, and he has convincingly passed two lie detector tests about the murders.

The legislature was supposed to take care of these pesky innocence cases with the 2001 DNA bill, which guarantees inmates access to DNA testing if it might prove useful in their defense. At least that's what state Rep. Leo Daughtry told the Associated Press in a recent interview explaining why he didn't favor a moratorium on executions. DNA testing on demand would preclude the need for more sweeping action, Daughtry said.

Leo must be too busy trying to salvage his bid for House Speaker to read the newspapers. Just a few weeks back, Joe Neff of The News &Observer detailed the case of Alan Gell, who it now turns out was either in jail or out of state at the time of the murder he allegedly committed. Gell was sentenced to death anyway, because the state withheld crucial evidence from the defense that almost certainly would have exonerated him. The revelation of state misconduct, not DNA tests, earned Gell a new trial.

And one can't expect poor, distracted Leo to remember the case of Charlie Alston. One year ago, Alston came within hours of execution even though he wanted to have DNA testing done on evidence in his case. The tests couldn't be done, however, because the state had "lost" the evidence.

Now comes Henry Lee Hunt, accused of killing Jackie Ransom in a murder-for-hire scheme, then knocking off Larry Jones to prevent him from snitching to the police about the first murder. At first glance, it's a simple case, replete with lots of eyewitnesses and physical evidence linking Hunt to both crimes.

But in the snakepit known as Robeson County, nothing is ever so simple. In a story that has become depressingly familiar, Hunt's competent and committed appeals lawyers have chipped away the state's case in recent years until nothing of substance is left. What does remain is a disturbing portrait of a system determined to secure a conviction of Hunt no matter who may have committed the crimes. As with Alan Gell, prosecutors withheld important information at trial that would have undermined their case.

If this sounds like a basic subversion of justice, it gets worse. A la Charlie Alston, evidence that may have exonerated Hunt has been destroyed by law enforcement--both the State Bureau of Investigation and the Lumberton Police Department admit to trashing field notes and other files. The SBI claims that such destruction is routine after cases are "closed," which in bureau lingo apparently means seconds after conviction and to hell with appeals. An LPD officer testified in a post-conviction hearing that department files in capital cases are usually closely guarded, but that one or more boxes in Hunt's case somehow disappeared.

Compounding the outrage, Hunt's lawyers have yet to see whatever evidence the state still has in its possession despite repeated requests, and despite laws that seem to require disclosure. Instead, Attorney General Roy Cooper and his minions argue that Hunt has no right to see the information on technical grounds. One can only conclude that the information in those files (if they haven't already shredded it) would further erode the bureau's already tarnished image. Why else would they resist?

Dottie Ransom and Rogers Locklear were happily married. Unfortunately for them, Dottie was also married to Jackie Ransom, so she and Locklear decided to kill Jackie and collect on a $25,000 insurance policy she'd taken out on his life. They hired local thug A.R. Barnes to do the dirty work. On Sept. 8, 1984, Jackie Ransom was shot to death in the woods behind a local bar. Witnesses would later testify that Ransom was last seen in the company of a man who resembled Barnes.

After launching an investigation, police picked up Barnes and administered a polygraph exam, which he flunked. Barnes immediately confessed to the murder, offering details that were remarkably consistent with the crime. Within a week, though, Barnes recanted and blamed two other people, his brother Elwell Barnes and Henry Lee Hunt. Why police chose to believe this instead of the original confession is unclear, but they went after Hunt with both barrels.

Hunt was also charged with killing Larry Jones, who had contacted police and was allegedly preparing to tell them about his knowledge of the Ransom murder. To prevent this, the state contended, Hunt met Jones at a bar, drove him to a secluded spot, shot him and buried him in a shallow grave.

The prosecutor was infamous Robeson County District Attorney Joe Freeman Britt, who relished his reputation as the nation's deadliest lawman and entered the Guinness Book of World Records in 1976 as the D.A. with the most death-penalty convictions.

Britt presented a parade of witnesses against Hunt and Elwell Barnes, who were tried together. Most were themselves implicated in one or both murders and were given breaks in exchange for their testimony. Rogers Locklear and Dottie Ransom, for example, pleaded guilty to conspiracy and served fewer than five years each in prison. Jerome Ratley, who said he was with Hunt during the Jones murder, escaped prosecution entirely. Jim Delton Freeman was facing a lengthy prison stretch for a parole violation when he testified that Hunt had given him the murder weapon; afterward, the parole violation disappeared.

Time after time, witness testimony conflicted with the physical evidence, with other testimony, or with earlier statements the witnesses had made to police. For example, Ratley's account of the Jones murder contradicts the findings of crime reconstruction experts as well as the testimony of Minnie Locklear, Rogers Locklear's daughter, who was dating Jones at the time of his death. But Hunt's trial attorneys, whose preparation was minimal, failed to press the advantage presented by the discrepancies.

Britt also lacked physical evidence, but that didn't stop him from claiming otherwise. The state presented two shovels Hunt had borrowed from a neighbor, one of which the prosecution claimed Hunt had used to bury Jones. But the soil on the shovels did not match the soil from the area where Jones was found; again, the defense neglected to point out the fatal flaw.

The state's theory of the Jones murder hinged on the testimony of Hunt's estranged girlfriend, who said that Jones had threatened to rat Hunt out to police for the Ransom killing. But what prosecutors didn't tell the defense was that Jones had talked with Lumberton police officers prior to his death and had never mentioned Hunt at all. Other witnesses later asserted during Hunt's appeals that Jones was going to finger Rogers Locklear, not Hunt. Without a motive to kill Jones, the foundation of the state's case turns to Jell-O.

Elwell Barnes, who also got a death sentence, died in prison before his execution. Prior to his death, however, he wrote an affidavit swearing that he, his brother A.R., Rogers Locklear and others committed the murders. Henry Lee Hunt, he wrote, was innocent.

As the state's case has unraveled over time, the official response has been sadly predictable. The first is to demonize Hunt. Garth Locklear (no relation to conspirator Rogers Locklear), former chief investigator for the Robeson County Sheriff's Office, recently told the Fayetteville Observer that Hunt was implicated in many other murders and "is the most dangerous man I have ever known in Robeson County." He remembered his script well: Before the trial, he used those exact words to describe Hunt to the press. Hunt has never been charged with another murder, and though his track record is checkered, it pales in comparison to some of Robeson County's hardest criminals.

The second response has been no response at all. Maybe Roy Cooper figures that if he can just ignore the moral and legal questions about state misconduct, Hunt will be executed and the whole sorry mess will just go away. If an innocent man gets killed as a result, well, Hunt's a bad guy anyway, so who cares?

But is there anything more cowardly or reprehensible than letting someone die who may be innocent just to save face?

The case against Henry Lee Hunt has been tainted by many of the same problems that have plagued death-penalty cases in North Carolina and elsewhere: bad lawyers, racial bias (Hunt is Native American) and disproportional sentencing. But none of those issues were enough to inspire Gov. Mike Easley, keenly aware of the political consequences of each decision, to grant clemency in recent cases. He did, however, spare Charlie Alston, and Alan Gell will eventually get a new trial courtesy of the courts. Now Easley again finds himself in the unenviable position of pointing thumbs up or down for a man's life. Perhaps the specter of executing an innocent person will prick his conscience enough to grant clemency, even if it doesn't seem to bother Cooper or the SBI. EndBlock

Burtman is assisting the campaign to save the life of Henry Lee Hunt. Send death threats to burtman@indy week.com.


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