Winston-Salem Journal

Judge stays Friday's execution of Greensboro man
Charles Walker was convicted on others' testimony; judge wants to hear more about that, and about jurors' instructions
By Lisa Hoppenjans; Winston-Salem Journal
November 30, 2004

A Superior Court judge has stayed Friday's scheduled execution of a Greensboro man who was convicted of murder based largely on the testimony of his co-defendants, with no physical evidence to link him to the crime.

Judge John Craig said yesterday after a hearing in Guilford Superior Court that he wanted to hear more about arguments that Charles Walker may not be eligible for the death penalty because his conviction was based solely on the testimony of others involved in the crime. Such testimony is often deemed unreliable because those involved in the crime are motivated to tailor their stories to minimize their own guilt, Walker's attorneys said.

State law prevents a defendant considered to be an accessory before the fact to a capital felony from receiving the death penalty if the jury finds that the conviction was "based solely on the uncorroborated testimony of one or more principals, co-conspirators, or accessories to the crime." Walker's attorneys, Paul Green and Jonathan Megerian, argued that although a jury convicted Walker of first-degree murder by acting with others who committed the crime, the statute should apply to him as well.

"The purpose of this statute is clearly to protect people, North Carolina citizens, from being sentenced to death on testimony that everybody considers to be inherently unreliable," Green said.

Craig said he also wanted to hear more arguments about whether jurors received appropriate instructions about an aggravating factor that they cited as a reason to impose the death penalty.

Walker, 39, was convicted of murder in the 1992 death of Elmon Tito Davidson Jr., in Greensboro. Walker has maintained his innocence. Davidson's body was never found and there is no physical evidence of the killing.

However, four others charged in the crime reached plea agreements with prosecutors. Three of them testified against Walker at his trial and have been released from prison; the fourth is eligible for parole next year.

Two other women who testified against Walker were never charged, but Walker's attorneys argued that they could be considered accessories after the fact to the murder.

In a 1995 trial, jurors decided that Walker was guilty of first-degree murder by acting with others to kill Davidson, rejecting evidence that he had delivered the fatal shot to Davidson himself.

Jonathan Babb, a special deputy attorney general, argued that the statute did not apply to Walker because the evidence showed his responsibility for the crime is greater than that of someone who is an accessory before the fact. A person is considered to be an accessory before the fact if he persuades others to commit a crime, but is not actually close enough to assist with the crime if needed when it is carried out.

"There is a drastic difference in degree of culpability between someone who is at the scene and someone who is not at the scene," Babb said.

The jury, Babb said, decided that Walker's role merited the death penalty and that the verdict should stand.

The state attorney general's office can appeal Craig's ruling to the N.C. Supreme Court before Friday and ask that the execution go ahead as scheduled. Babb declined to comment on a possible appeal.

Walker did not attend yesterday's hearing, but 15 of his family members did. They hugged his attorneys outside the courtroom after Craig's decision.

Angela Douthit, a cousin who lives in Clemmons, said she had been "expecting a miracle," and thought that Craig's decision qualified.

Gretchen Engel, the director of post-conviction litigation for the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham, said that appeals based on questions about guilt have been mostly unsuccessful in the past, but that several high-profile cases of inmates being exonerated have raised awareness of flaws in the justice system.

One of the inmates who was exonerated - Darryl Hunt - spoke at a small rally of death-penalty opponents before yesterday's hearing. Hunt, who was wrongfully convicted of the 1984 murder of newspaper copy editor Deborah Sykes in Winston-Salem, said he has reviewed Walker's case and believes that he is innocent.

"It's shocking to me that the system can actually convict a person who's innocent and let the guilty people walk the street," Hunt said.

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