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2 men imprisoned for decades for murder they said they did not commit have been freed

Kate Ter Harr
Flickr Creative Commons

Two men imprisoned for nearly 30 years for a murder they said they did not commit have been freed following plea deals with the state of North Carolina.

Brandon Jones, 49, and Leroy Spruill, 63, had to drop their long-running innocence claims as part of the deal, but the state agreed DNA evidence tested years after their convictions, while not conclusive, could have had “a direct and material bearing” on their case, WRAL reported Friday.

Jones and Spruill entered Alford pleas in the case and were sentenced to time served. An Alford plea allows someone to maintain their innocence while acknowledging there is enough evidence for a conviction.

A Superior Court judge vacated the convictions Monday and followed on Wednesday with a written court order. The men were released Tuesday afternoon.

The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission reviewed the two cases over nine years. In October 2018, the commission unanimously decided there was enough evidence for a panel of judges to review the case. The hearings were delayed, in part because authorities could not find a witness whose story shifted several times but was key to the convictions.

Jones and Spruill were convicted in the 1995 murder of Frank Swain, who was beaten, stabbed and had his throat cut in what appeared to be a robbery. They maintained they were together at a bar that night and never wavered, despite plea deals promising much less prison time if either flipped on the other.

A tire iron found at the scene did not have any fingerprints on it, according to court records. It had DNA from three people, but none from the accused, records show. These and other inconsistencies convinced observers the two men did not commit the slaying.

Willie Williams, an investigator in the initial murder case and now police chief in Plymouth, declined to comment Wednesday. Washington County District Attorney Seth Edwards also declined to comment because he had been Spruill’s defense counsel. Edwards also testified on Spruill’s behalf in Innocence Inquiry proceedings.

By dropping their innocence claims, Jones and Spruill forgo the possibility of a pardon and the $750,000 payment they’d each be eligible for if proven innocent. Chris Mumma, executive director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, said the issue could be reopened, though, if new evidence is found. The Center on Actual Innocence would provide the men with some financial support and raise money online to help them restart their lives, she said.

Spruill said he plans to return to his native Washington County, where he was convicted. Jones will head to Tennessee, where he has family.

“I can’t say it strongly enough or often enough, but these two men are absolutely innocent,” Mumma said. “Had nothing to do with the murder of Frank Swain.”

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