Sunday, 4 May 2008

Close call -- again: Another North Carolina death row inmate is freed, with a judge citing flaws in his defense and the case against him

With his great-niece Tatyana McCormick and great-nephew Christian McCormick in hand, Levon "Bo" Jones walks out of the Duplin County Jail a free man after spending 13 years on death row, charged with robbing and shooting Leamon Grady in February 1987.

May 03, 2008 (The News & Observer - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX)

Were Levon "Bo" Jones of Duplin County the very first person freed from North Carolina's death row because of problems with his murder trial and judicial doubts about the case, he still would be a good example of why the death penalty is grievously flawed. But he is the eighth such person. The eighth.

Jones spent 13 years on death row for the killing of a man in Duplin -- Leamon Grady, a bootlegger, was robbed and shot in his home in February of 1987. Jones was released yesterday, after charges against him were dropped by the same district attorney who successfully prosecuted him in 1993. A retrial had been planned, but the star prosecution witness recanted her testimony that had helped put Jones and two others away. Prosecutor Dewey Hudson still believes Jones was involved.

Jones was convicted along with a co-defendant who is serving a life sentence. Another co-defendant who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder was released in 2001.

Jones' current lawyers maintain he is innocent, and Lovely Lorden, his former lover and the witness against him, has long taken back her claims that Jones did the killing. She now says she was coached by a detective.

In any case, thanks to U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle, who offered a tough and clear-eyed assessment of the trial and all that was wrong with it, Jones will walk free. Boyle, a veteran conservative jurist with a reputation for calling them as he sees them no matter who is involved, had ruled in 2006 that Jones should be taken off death row. He minced few words in saying that Jones' trial attorneys, Graham Phillips Jr. and Charles C. Henderson, had offered a defense that was "constitutionally deficient."

He said that the lawyers had failed to research Lorden enough to try to discredit her with jurors and that they had been inadequately prepared to talk to jurors about Jones' health problems and his troubled childhood in order to persuade them to spare him the death penalty. Boyle ruled that "but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different."

North Carolina's death penalty has been on hold since last year, as legal issues are debated, including whether doctors can be forced to participate in any way in the execution process (the state's Medical Board says no).

But there have been too many instances of less-than-adequate defenses, of excessive zeal by prosecutors, of questionable investigations. And yet eight people who were on death row might well have been executed despite the various flaws in their cases.

Boyle is a lifetime appointee who doesn't run for election and has no motive to play to the galleries when it comes to controversial cases. He's also a conservative Republican, and a man of the law with guts and intellectual fortitude. That's the kind of jurist who was needed on this case.

Every episode such as this should be another lesson to North Carolina's legislators as to the hopeless rationale that the death penalty can be, always, fairly applied because the justice system is flawless. The system may do right most of the time, but it is not perfect, and this one penalty that cannot be corrected, or reversed, should be abandoned.

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