KENANSVILLE, N.C. – A man who spent 15 years on death row was released from prison Friday after prosecutors dropped all charges less than two weeks before his scheduled retrial.
Levon "Bo" Jones greeted family with a wide smile and outstretched arms as he walked out of Duplin County Jail. Jones' murder conviction was overturned in 2006, but prosecutors decided not to retry the case after a key witness recanted her story.
"I'm ready to go," Jones told The News & Observer of Raleigh. "I've been here too long."
Jones was convicted and sentenced to death for the fatal shooting of Leamon Grady, a local bootlegger who was robbed and found dead in his home in 1987. District Attorney Dewey Hudson dismissed the charges but said he still believes Jones had a hand in Grady's death.
Jones has long maintained his innocence, and his attorneys Friday reiterated problems with the original 1993 trial.
A federal judge threw out Jones' first-degree murder conviction in 2006, after deciding his original attorneys didn't adequately defend Jones, research the case or scrutinize witness statements.
Hudson planned to retry Jones on May 12, but decided to drop charges after his star witness, Lovely Lorden, recanted her story in an affidavit taken last month.
"Much of what I testified to was simply not true," Lorden, Jones' former lover, said in the affidavit.
Lorden said a detective coached her before trial as to what to say about Jones and his co-defendant Larry Lamb. She also said she collected $4,000 from the governor's office for giving key information in the case.
"This case points out the problems with capital counsel in many parts of the country," said Brian Stull, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's Capital Punishment Project. "Bo Jones's first trial lawyer never bothered to get the many conflicting statements of Lovely Lorden, let alone do the kind of investigation necessary in a first-degree murder case."
Hudson has said he believes Jones received a fair trial but won't risk taking Lorden before another jury.
"It was a close case, but I still feel he received a fair trial," Hudson said. "It's obvious she hasn't told the truth. I believe she told the truth at trial."
Jones' attorney, Ernest Conner, said Jones was innocent and that Lorden had previously recanted her testimony to other people.
Lorden also testified against Lamb, who is serving a life sentence for the murder. Another co-defendant, Ernest Matthews, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was released in 2001. Lamb plans to ask that his case be reviewed, according to the ACLU.
Jones is the second inmate in two months to walk away a free man from North Carolina's death row.
In April, Glen Edward Chapman was released from Central Prison in Raleigh after spending 14 years on death row. Catawba County prosecutor Jay Gaither decided not to retry the case after a judge granted Chapman a new trial. The judge ruled Chapman was offered ineffective assistance from his original attorneys and that evidence was lost, destroyed or withheld.
The death penalty has effectively been halted in North Carolina by a tangle of legal and court issues including questions about a medical doctor's role, or lack thereof, during a lethal injection. An inmate was last executed in North Carolina in August 2006.