Posted on Wed, Sep. 10, 2003 Charlotte Observer

Deadly question
Is North Carolina about to execute an innocent man?

Here's the deadly question Gov. Mike Easley must consider: Is the state of North Carolina about to execute an innocent man?

Henry Lee Hunt was scheduled to die by lethal injection at 2 a.m. Friday morning for the murders of Jackie Ransom and Larry Jones in Robeson County in 1984 until a Superior Court judge granted a stay Tuesday pending a hearing on the drugs the state uses for executions.

But Mr. Hunt's lawyers have raised troubling questions about whether authorities nabbed the right man. The facts suggest not only that the state may be about to execute the wrong person, but also that the killer died behind bars.

Here's what we know for sure: Jackie Ransom was killed for $25,000 in insurance money. Roger Locklear, who was involved with Jackie Ransom's wife, hired A.R. Barnes to commit the murder. A.R. Barnes recruited his brother, Elwell Barnes, to help. Jackie Ransom was shot to death in some woods near a bar. A week later, someone -- apparently fearing that he might tell police what he knew about the murder -- shot Larry Jones and buried him in a shallow grave.

First, A.R. Barnes confessed to the crimes. Then he recanted and blamed Henry Lee Hunt, who had a criminal record and was in prison for a drug offense. Other witnesses also pointed to Mr. Hunt. A jury convicted him in 1985 and sentenced him to death.

There were problems with the evidence prosecutors presented, such as the two shovels prosecutors say were used to kill and bury Mr. Jones. Neither shovel bore soil matching dirt from the grave site, but the jury was never told of any discrepancies.

To make matters worse, State Bureau of Investigation and Lumberton police destroyed field notes and other records that might have helped Mr. Hunt's appeals -- in at least one case after the defense asked for the files.

Mr. Hunt has contended consistently he didn't commit the murders. He has twice taken and passed lie detector tests administered by polygraph expert L.S. Fulmer of Davidson. That doesn't establish Mr. Hunt's innocence, but it does raise further doubts about his guilt.

So does an affidavit signed by a man who died in prison nearly three years ago. Elwell Barnes, who was originally recruited by his brother to help kill Jackie Ransom, said in an affidavit signed in 1989 that he and three other men were responsible for the murders. Henry Lee Hunt "has been convicted for a crime that, A.R. Barnes, Jerome Ratley, Roger Locklear and myself committed," he wrote. The affidavit was notarized by a Central Prison guard and notary public named M.G. McNeill, but that signed confession came into Mr. Hunt's possession only in 2002.

Gov. Easley has the unenviable constitutional duty of considering clemency in capital punishment cases. He must decide whether the state should execute Mr. Hunt -- and whether the evidence is so sketchy that the state risks committing an injustice as unconscionable as the 1984 murders.

This is one more reason why the governor ought to impose a moratorium on executions until the state can devise a system in which death sentences can be rendered without reasonable doubts about the guilt or innocence of the accused. The state has failed that test in the case of Henry Lee Hunt.

Death Penalty Issues
Truth in Justice