Raleigh News-Observer

Friday, April 25, 2003 

Another N.C. death row prisoner gets new trial because evidence withheld

By GARY D. ROBERTSON , Associated Press Writer

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - For the second time in 4 1/2 months, a judge has ordered a new trial for a North Carolina death row prisoner because prosecutors withheld evidence that could have helped defense attorneys.

The 1997 murder conviction of Jerry Lee Hamilton was vacated Wednesday when Judge Michael Beale ruled in Richmond County that a letter written by the state's chief witness - Hamilton's nephew - should have been provided to Hamilton's lawyers.

Another judge in December ordered a new trial for a man on death row since 1998, faulting prosecutors and police for withholding evidence, including a taped conversation with the state's pivotal witness.

The rulings reflect the need for more scrutiny with all capital cases, according to one death penalty reformer.

"This is exactly the kind of conduct on the part of prosecutors that results in innocent people being put in prison, and in this case, being put on death row," James Coleman, a Duke University law professor, said Thursday.

Defense attorneys for Hamilton never received a copy of a letter written by Johnny Ray Knight to a Richmond sheriff's captain a month after the death of Joy Jones Goebel. Knight, writing from jail, invited him to "come talk to me and maybe we can work out a deal" about a missing woman.

Soon after, Knight confessed to Goebel's December 1994 death and ultimately led deputies to her body in some woods, according to court documents. Two months later Knight blamed the stabbing on Hamilton, who had been convicted of second-degree murder in the 1970s.

In reviewing the state's files at appeal, Hamilton's attorneys recovered the letter, which they argued could have been used to impeach Knight's testimony that Hamilton stabbed Goebel with Knight's knife after both men had sex with her. Knight also testified that no deals had been made with authorities.

Knight's testimony identifying Hamilton as Goebel's killer was the only direct evidence in the case, Beale said. Attorneys for the state argued that the letter wasn't material to the outcome of the case, but Beale disagreed.

"There is a reasonable probability that the result of this proceeding would have been different had this evidence been made available to (Hamilton) as requested" by his lawyers, Beale wrote in ordering the new trial. "The withholding of this evidence is sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome of this trial."

Joey Morris, an attorney for Hamilton, received the judge's order Thursday and alerted his client at Raleigh's Central Prison.

"He was extremely pleased," Morris said. "I was thrilled to give this news to him."

Beale didn't mention in his 24-page order recent DNA testing of semen found inside Goebel's body that could strengthen Hamilton's case. The State Bureau of Investigation crime lab determined that the semen belonged to Knight, Hamilton's defense attorneys said. Earlier testing presented at trial couldn't identify the semen's donor.

Hamilton's attorneys argued test results provided to them in January further lowered Knight's credibility.

Knight is serving a 9 1/2-to-12 year sentence in the case for second-degree murder, according to Correction Department records.

The state could appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court. John Bason, a spokesman for Attorney General Roy Cooper, said Cooper's office hadn't seen the order late Thursday and couldn't comment. In Gell's case, the state decided against an appeal and now must decide whether to try him again.

Beale ordered Hamilton released to the Richmond County Sheriff's Department and held without bond while awaiting trial. Hamilton, 44, was still on the Department of Correction's list of 202 death row prisoners early Friday.

Read the News-Observer's riveting series on the case of Alan Gell, another North Carolinian sent to death row for a crime he clearly did not commit.  Who Killed Allen Ray Jenkins?

Death Penalty
Police/Prosecutor Misconduct

Truth in Justice