Just hours before the N.C. Actual Innocence Commission holds its first meeting on Friday, Jan. 24, Henry Lee Hunt is scheduled to be executed. Gov. Mike Easley has a remarkable opportunity before then to step forward and show that the state of North Carolina is serious about addressing failures in its criminal justice system in general, and the death penalty process in particular. He should grant Hunt clemency not just because the system is flawed, but because Hunt may be innocent. Taking him off death row would send a message to prosecutors and police across North Carolina that for the state to put a person to death, there can be no room for doubt.
As numerous accounts, including those in the Independent, have made clear, there are myriad concerns. Hunt was convicted of killing two people in Robeson County in 1984 even though another man confessed, then recanted and blamed Hunt and one other man. The prosecutor was Robeson County D.A. Joe Freeman Britt, who made the Guinness Book of World Records for his prolific death-penalty convictions. During the trial, witnesses' statements conflicted with physical evidence, with previous testimony and with theories of the case. Despite claims of physical evidence linking Hunt to the crime, none was ever definitively produced. And another defendant in the case, before he died in prison, swore in an affidavit that he and others had committed the murders, and that Hunt was innocent.
But the state's determination to execute Hunt doesn't stop there. Since the trial, evidence that might have exonerated Hunt was destroyed by the State Bureau of Investigation and the Lumberton Police Department. And Attorney General Roy Cooper is obstinantly refusing to release other evidence that may show that Hunt is innocent.
Do you think an innocent man couldn't be executed in North Carolina? Think again. We've come almost this close before. One case involved the same county and the same prosecutor as the Hunt case. John Oliver, who was convicted for two 1978 murders in Robeson County, had his death sentence overturned in 1994 when a Superior Court judge found that the prosecution--including Sheriff's Deputy Garth Locklear, D.A. Joe Freeman Britt, and others who also happen to have worked on the Hunt case--had withheld from the defense important information that would have cast doubt on eyewitnesses' identification of Oliver.
Just a handful of days before Hunt's scheduled execution, neither Easley nor Cooper has shown the slightest concern that these same allegations taint the case of Henry Lee Hunt. Let us hope that by the time you read these words, they will have spoken up and given the Actual Innocence Commission a powerful reminder of the importance of their work--and perhaps saved an innocent man's life. If not, Henry Lee Hunt's memory will become another tragic reminder why there should be no death penalty at all.