Innocent North Carolina Man Exonerated After 14 Years On Death Row
In 1993, Levon "Bo" Jones, an innocent African American man, was wrongfully convicted of the 1987 murder of Leamon Grady, a white man. The case against Jones built by investigators and prosecutors was riddled with errors, oversight and ineptitude.
The prosecution's star witness was a career snitch who was paid $4,000 for her testimony. She told several contradictory stories about the killing and later recanted her story of Jones' involvement in the murder. The only legitimate suspect, whom police knew had twice gone to Grady's home the night of the murder, who owed Grady money, who lied to the police during the investigation of the murder and who fled the county the next day, was never charged. And the defense provided to Jones by his initial defense attorneys was deemed so poor that a federal judge in 2006 overturned his conviction, ruling that critical evidence pointing to his innocence was never considered.
Yet despite his innocence, Bo Jones spent nearly 16 years in prison — with most of that time spent on North Carolina's death row. On the afternoon of May 2, 2008, justice long overdue was served when the Duplin County District Attorney announced that all charges against Jones were being dropped and Jones walked out of prison a free man. But while the granting of Jones' freedom is certainly a cause for celebration, the fact that he faced for 14 long years the prospect of being wrongfully killed by the state of North Carolina is a sickening reality that highlights all of the rampant problems that ails the death penalty system in the United States and which should serve as just the latest dire warning that a nation that cannot ensure that innocent people won't be wrongfully sent to their death should not utilize the death penalty at all.
Indeed, Jones is the fifth death row exoneree in the United States in just the past 11 months. In North Carolina alone, three innocent men have been freed from death row since December. There have been a total of 129 innocent people released from death row since 1973. Jones' case is not an anomaly — it is, unfortunately, part of a burgeoning trend.
Jones' case is an example of routine prosecutorial reliance on the testimony of snitches — a practice that must end. According to the Innocence Project, testimony of snitches — witnesses who have incentives to lie — is the leading cause of wrongful convictions of individuals on death row. Over fifty innocent men have been sentenced to death based on snitch testimony.
And Jones' case is an example of the deep-seated racial and economic bias that is inherent to the death penalty system in America and which leaves African Americans and people living in poverty particularly vulnerable to wrongful and unjust state killings. Studies show that between the years of 1993 and 1997, juries in North Carolina were three times more likely to return death verdicts if the victim was white than if the victim was a person of color. And studies show that nationally, a black defendant accused of murdering a white victim is far more likely to receive the death penalty than any other defendant and victim race combination. In states from coast to coast, the odds of getting a poor, untrained, and inexperienced capital attorney remain unacceptably high.
Because of the work of the ACLU Capital Punishment Project and the private North Carolina attorney Ernest Conner, Bo Jones was able to be reunited with his family. There are many other innocents on death row, however, who might not be so fortunate.