Five former prisoners who were wrongfully convicted in a home invasion murder have received settlements and compensation totaling nearly $8 million following a botched investigation and misconduct by the sheriff’s office in Buncombe County, North Carolina.
Three masked men entered the Fairview home of Walter R. Bowman on September 18, 2000 and one of them fired a shotgun through a bedroom door, killing him. Police subsequently arrested Robert Wilcoxson, Kenneth Kagonyera, Damian M. Mills, Teddy Lamont Isbell, Sr. and Larry Jerome Williams, Jr. Charges were filed but later dropped against a sixth suspect, Aaron Brewton.
Of the two sheriff’s investigators assigned to the case, one had recently suffered a brain aneurysm and was on light work duty, while the other had not been trained in criminal case investigations.
“I shouldn’t never have been working that case. I shouldn’t never have been going back to work as early as I did,” said George Sprinkle, the detective who had an aneurysm.
Further, initial DNA tests conducted in 2001 excluded Wilcoxson, Kagonyera, Williams, Isbell and Mills from DNA evidence found on bandanas and gloves used during the home invasion, though they were not initially informed of the test results.
The five defendants pleaded guilty, later saying they did so to avoid more serious penalties such as life sentences or the death penalty. They each received 10 to 15 years in prison for second-degree murder.
The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, established in 2006, reviews cases involving “credible post-conviction claims of innocence.” Following an initial hearing in April 2011, the Commission found there was sufficient evidence to proceed with a judicial review on the innocence claims of Kagonyera and Wilcoxson, who were exonerated by a three-judge panel in September 2011.
Wilcoxson subsequently filed suit in federal court against Buncombe County, alleging that Sheriff Bobby Medford and Deputies Sam Constance, George Sprinkle, Michael Murphy, Roney Hilliard and John Elkins committed acts that resulted in false imprisonment, malicious prosecution and due process violations.
He argued that Sprinkle, Murphy and Constance, under Medford’s direction, had coerced statements from other parties and showed a witness a highly suggestive photo array to induce the witness to identify him.
Wilcoxson further said the sheriff’s office had altered video surveillance footage from a store by taping over video of three other suspects, and had falsely claimed Wilcoxson and one of his co-defendants were shown on the video. Inexplicably, 3 to 4 minutes of the surveillance footage had been recorded over with a TV soap opera after the video had been received by the sheriff’s office. The video did, however, show the car the other suspects were driving – a 1971 Cutlass Supreme.
The three men eventually identified as the actual perpetrators of the crime were Lacy “JJ” Pickens III, Robert Rutherford and Brad Summey. Pickens had been an initial suspect, but an investigator erroneously thought he was in jail at the time of the home invasion and murder. In fact, Pickens had only been serving time on weekends and was free on work release during weekdays, when the crime occurred. He also owned a 1971 Cutlass Supreme.
Rutherford confessed to his role in the Bowman murder in 2003, but the sheriff’s office and the county prosecutor failed to investigate his confession. In 2007, DNA evidence obtained from the bandana and gloves used during Bowman’s murder was matched to Pickens, Rutherford and Summey. Pickens had died the year before in a police-related shooting, according to the Citizen-Times.
Following Wilcoxson’s exoneration, the state awarded him $545,591 in compensation in April 2012, and he filed his lawsuit against the county the following year. During that litigation, former Buncombe County prosecutor Kate Dreher pleaded the Fifth Amendment when refusing to answer questions about her role in the case. During a deposition, former Sheriff Bobby Medford admitted that he had pressured suspects into pleading guilty.
“If this guy, he didn’t do it and he said ‘If you’re going to plea, we’re going to give you two years, but if you don’t plea, we’re going to give you 20 years,’ hell, they’re going to jump at the two years, and not going to take a chance on a jury trial,” he stated.
The former sheriff was convicted on unrelated money laundering, conspiracy and obstruction of justice charges for turning a blind eye to illegal video-poker machines; he was sentenced in 2008 to 15 years in federal prison. He still receives $3,500 in monthly retirement benefits from the county.
Wilcoxson, who had no prior criminal record, reached a $5.125 million settlement in his lawsuit on July 8, 2015 for the 11 years he spent in prison on the charges related to Bowman’s murder. See: Wilcoxson v. Buncombe County, U.S.D.C. (W.D. NC), Case No. 1:13-cv-00224-MR-DSC. Kagonyera, who also served 11 years, settled a separate suit for $515,000 in April 2015. See: Kagonyera v. Buncombe County, U.S.D.C. (W.D. NC), Case No. 1:14-cv-00251-MR-DCK.
Isbell spent six years in prison while Mills and Williams were incarcerated for about 10 years. Expecting that they too would be exonerated, as the facts in their cases were similar to those that led the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission to exonerate Wilcoxson and Kagonyera, county officials agreed to pay them pre-litigation settlements of $240,000, $512,250 and $750,000, respectively.
Williams, Mills and Isbell were formally exonerated on September 30, 2015 by Buncombe County Superior Court Judge Neil Crosswhite, who found they had “demonstrated their actual innocence by clear and convincing evidence.”
“The circumstances that led to their guilty pleas raised many questions about the practices and interview techniques used by former Sheriff Bobby Medford,” stated County Manager Wanda Greene. “After hundreds of hours of interviews and depositions, it’s clear the actions were inappropriate and a disservice to the defendants and the criminal justice system has failed these five men.”
It also failed county taxpayers, who will pay about $5 million of the total cost of the settlements, with insurance covering the balance.
Although state investigators had sent DNA test results to then-Buncombe County District Attorney Ron Moore indicating that Wilcoxson and the other defendants convicted of murdering Bowman were innocent, Moore took no action. Nor was he required to do so.
According to an April 16, 2016 news report by the Associated Press, unlike at least 13 other states, North Carolina had not adopted an American Bar Association (ABA) rule that requires prosecutors to disclose “new, credible and material evidence” of a defendant’s innocence. In the wake of the exonerations and settlements in the Bowman case, the State Bar reconsidered whether to adopt the ABA rule.
“If prosecutors have an ethical duty to avoid wrongful convictions, then they should have some sort of ethical duty to remedy wrongful convictions,” stated Brad Bannon, a member of the North Carolina State Bar’s Ethics Committee.
In a June 24, 2016 letter submitted to the State Bar, the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys opposed adoption of the ABA rule requiring prosecutors to turn over evidence of innocence after a defendant is convicted, saying it could be “ineffectual and subject to abuse.”
Regardless, the Ethics Committee unanimously voted to approve the rule and expanded it to apply to all attorneys, not just prosecutors, in October 2016.
Additional sources: Associated Press, Citizen Times, www.verdictsearch.com, USA Today, www.innocencecommission-nc.gov, www.mountainx.com, www.wsoctv.com, www.ncbar.gov
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Related legal cases
Wilcoxson v. Buncombe County
|Cite||U.S.D.C. (W.D. NC), Case No. 1:13-cv-00224-MR-DSC|
Kagonyera v. Buncombe County
|Cite||U.S.D.C. (W.D. NC), Case No. 1:14-cv-00251-MR-DCK|