RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Two men serving sentences for the 1993 murder of a drug dealer in eastern North Carolina will get the chance to prove they didn't commit the crime after the state commission that investigates innocence claims referred their cases for judicial review.
The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission referred the cases of Wallace Brandon Jones and Leroy Spruill to a three-judge panel, the head of the state agency said Monday in a news release. Jones was convicted of first-degree murder in the 1993 slaying of Frank Swain of Roper in Washington County.
Spruill entered an Alford plea to second-degree murder. An Alford plea isn't a guilty plea but acknowledges prosecutors have enough evidence to convict.
Both men remain behind bars.
"This is a case that reflects how our justice system has changed over the last 25 years," said attorney Chris Mumma, executive director of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence in Durham. "I believe this case would never be brought to trial today. And if it were brought to trial, the evidence is so flimsy that both would have been acquitted."
Mumma referred the case to the Innocence Inquiry Commission in 2009 as the attorney for both men. At the commission hearing, she represented Jones, and Washington County public defender Thomas Routten represented Spruill.
The eight-member commission is a state agency responsible for investigating and evaluating post-conviction claims of innocence and is the only agency of its kind in the country. Since the commission began operations in 2007, 10 people have been exonerated.
Both Jones and Spruill said they were together at a bar in Roper on the night of Dec. 18, 1993, when someone beat and stabbed Swain and then cut his throat at his trailer. Less than a year after his death, Swain's girlfriend, Sonja Day, was found at her home with her throat slit. Her murder is unsolved, Mumma said.
A main witness at trial was Jones' ex-girlfriend, who testified at trial that she saw the two men kill Swain, according to the presentation to the Innocence Inquiry Commission. But both before and after trial, she provided different versions of events, according to the presentation.
From 2002 to 2004, the then-police chief of Plymouth, John Floyd, conducted an independent investigation. The State Bureau of Investigation opened an investigation in 2004, based partially on Floyd's work, and closed it in 2011.
Spruill's defense attorney was Seth Edwards, who's now the district attorney in Washington County. He testified on Spruill's behalf at the hearing, Mumma said.
Because of Edwards' conflict of interest, a prosecutor from the state Attorney General's Office will defend the men's guilt, Mumm said. A spokeswoman from that office didn't return an email seeking comment.
State Supreme Court chief justice Mark Martin will appoint three Superior Court judges to hear the case in Washington County.
This story has been corrected to show Spruill entered an Alford plea instead of pleading no contest.