April 3, 2008
Another innocent inmate leaves death row
Glen Chapman spent almost 14 years awaiting execution because an investigator lied and withheld evidence
Titan Barksdale, Staff Writer
Chapman is the seventh innocent death row prisoner in North Carolina to be released, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.
He was sentenced to death in 1994 in the slayings of Betty Jean Ramseur and Tenene Yvette Conley in Hickory. Their bodies were found in abandoned houses in August 1992. Chapman has always denied killing them.
Ervin's 186-page order said a lead investigator, Dennis Rhoney, withheld information that a key witness in the Ramseur case identified someone other than Chapman in a photo lineup. Rhoney, who worked for the Hickory Police Department, also lied during his trial testimony against Chapman, Ervin wrote.
Ervin added that a report by a forensic scientist showed that one of the victims likely died of a drug overdose, rather than by foul play.
"Everything that you can possibly imagine going wrong in a capital case went wrong," said Jessica Leaven, a lawyer who handled Chapman's case. "It's a prime example why the death penalty should be abolished."
Efforts to reach Rhoney, now a deputy in the Burke County Sheriff's Office, were unsuccessful.
The truth of testimony by Rhoney in previous trials also must be questioned, said Frank Goldsmith, another lawyer who worked on the case. Both lawyers called for an investigation into his conduct.
"I don't think it gets much worse than perjury by an officer of the law," Goldsmith said.
Chapman's appeals attorneys also argued that his trial attorneys, Thomas Portwood and Robert Adams, failed to interview several critical witnesses and were "excessive users of alcohol."
Portwood, who admitted he drank more than a pint of 80-proof rum every evening during several death penalty trials, has been challenged in court for his representation of at least two other men, one of whom was executed in 2001.
Adams told the N.C. State Bar that he drank three scotches a night but that it did not affect his trial performance, according to The Charlotte Observer. A 1998 psychiatrist's evaluation of Adams, ordered by the bar, concluded that Adams "had a drinking problem" and referred him to Alcoholics Anonymous, according to a bar discipline order.
Portwood died in 2003, and Adams could not be reached.
Chapman said he harbors no resentment toward Rhoney or the criminal justice system.
"I have no bitterness," Chapman said. "I feel better without it."
But he missed much of the growth of his two sons during his years on death row. Chapman talked with them Wednesday on a cell phone he could barely figure out how to use.
When prison officials told Chapman he was going home Wednesday, he didn't get his hopes up.
"I'm still shocked," Chapman said. "I didn't believe it until I was actually outside."
The prison jumpsuit Chapman wore was replaced by a crisp white dress shirt and black slacks. He was looking forward to relaxing Wednesday night and having steak for dinner -- a step up from the double-decker bologna and cheese sandwich he requested.
Chapman wants to reconnect with his family. Most of his relatives live in Hickory, but he said he doubts he will stay in the Western North Carolina town where his trouble began.
"I think it's time for me to move on," Chapman said.
In neighboring Newton, Charles Ramseur, Betty Ramseur's brother, struggled to make sense of the situation.
"It's a terrible situation for everyone involved," Ramseur said. "If he didn't do it, there are people who are still going to believe that he did it, and I'm sure he's going to have problems with that. But you can't get closure when this happens."
Ramseur said his sister was a drug addict who associated with criminals. Before her death, he said, he warned her about going to abandoned houses to use drugs.
If Rhoney lied, Ramseur said, he should be fired.
"We don't need any liars for investigators," Ramseur said.
Ervin, the judge, found that investigators never told prosecutors a witness identified someone other than Chapman as the person he saw before a June 1992 fire at the house where Ramseur's body was found. His ruling also said detectives never reported that witnesses said Conley was seen alive with someone who had a history of violence against her in the days after prosecutors said she died.
Defense lawyers said the only physical evidence that tied Chapman to the deaths was the result of consensual sex with Conley.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, the nearly 14 years Chapman spent on death row was the longest stint of any North Carolina death row inmate released because of innocence.
Gov. Mike Easley would have to sign a pardon for the state to pay Chapman. Though Chapman said he hasn't thought about trying to get state money, his attorneys said they would consider applying for a pardon.
"We'll do what we can," Goldsmith said. "Pardons are difficult. ... He was deeply wronged."
On Wednesday, it was enough for Chapman to savor his sandwich.
(Charlotte Observer writers Marcie Young and David Ingram contributed to this report.)
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