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'He could see the death chamber'

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At Raleigh's Central Prison, Charles "Tony" Walker was being prepped for execution. At the same time, Durham attorney Paul M. Green and co-counsel Jonathan Megerian were hard at work filing last-minute court briefs trying to save Walker's life. In Winston-Salem, Walker's cousin, Vera Jordan, the woman who cared for Walker as a child, was praying for a miracle. Against long odds, Jordan got her miracle. Walker's date with lethal injection was postponed thanks to good lawyering by Green and Megerian, and the rulings of some state court judges who were willing to consider arguments that Walker should not be on death row.

Walker, 39, had been scheduled to die last Friday for his role in the 1992 murder of Elmon Tito Davidson Jr. No physical evidence linked Walker to Davidson's murder. Walker was sentenced to death solely on the basis of testimony provided by five people who said they helped Walker shoot Davidson, slit his throat and dispose of his body in a dumpster. Davidson's body was never recovered, and Walker denies involvement in Davidson's murder. Without physical evidence, Walker would not have faced a trial in many states, said Green, whose grandfather was playwright and death penalty opponent Paul E. Green.

Walker was in line to become the state's fifth execution victim of 2004, but with just hours to spare, the N.C. Supreme Court refused the state attorney general's request to lift a stay of execution issued Nov. 29 by Guilford County Superior Court Judge John O. Craig III, who wrote that "a fundamental miscarriage of justice" would result if the court failed to consider claims raised by Walker's attorneys.

Of the five accomplices who testified against Walker, only one remains in prison and is eligible for parole next year; two have already been released from prison and two were not charged at all.

Despite the stay of execution, Central Prison officials carried on as if Walker would be executed as scheduled. Last-minute stays are usually vacated on appeal and the executions proceed. Walker was moved from his solitary confinement cell in disciplinary segregation to a "death watch" cell just a few feet from the execution chamber.

Walker's veins were checked by prison staff, and he was asked what he wanted for his last meal. Jordan said her heart "almost stopped" when she heard on the radio that Walker, a man she said is "mentally unbalanced," was moved to death watch.

"Just to think what he went through," Jordan said. "They put the tourniquet on his arm, and he could see the death chamber."

Sadness soon turned to joy for Jordan and her family. The state's attempt to vacate the stay failed. As soon as Green heard the news that Friday's execution was off, he got on the phone to call Walker's relatives.

Exhausted, Green said he had no profound words about "truth and light and justice and righteousness and everything. By the time you get this deep into a case you're just not thinking in those terms." Rather, on a gut level, Green said he felt like he had prevailed in "a knife fight."

"When you're in that situation, and you finally prevail, you're just real happy that you've won and you're not thinking about matters of high principle," Green said. "Those come a little later after reflection, but the immediate emotion is, 'Thank God that we prevailed.' I feel like I can get some sleep now."

Former death row inmate Alan Gell, who was sent to death row for a crime he did not commit, said he sees correlations between his case and Walker's. Both involved the testimony of accomplices. After nine years on death row, Gell was granted a new trial and was acquitted of murder.

"If I stand and look in the mirror, I see Charles' face," Gell said last Saturday night when he spoke on a panel at a Durham conference sponsored by People of Faith Against the Death Penalty.

Jordan, who started taking anti-depressants when Walker's execution date was set, said she and the rest of Walker's family rejoiced at the news the execution was off.

"The Lord delivered Daniel from the lion's den," Jordan said. "I can't even describe how we felt."

Jordan said the execution of Walker, who is African American, would be a "modern-day lynching."

"He says he didn't do it, and I believe him, and we're praying," she said. "I believe the Lord will deliver him from this. We love him. We really do."

For Walker, life goes on, but not the kind of life anyone would want to experience. Because of a disciplinary infraction, Walker was returned to segregation where he spends 23 hours a day alone in his cell. He gets one hour out to exercise and shower.

In 2004, four men were executed in North Carolina, down from last year's total of seven. Four women and 179 men remain on the state's death row. Executed in 2004 were: Raymond Rowsey (Jan. 9); Sammy Perkins (Oct. 8); Charles Wesley Roach (Oct. 22) and Frank Ray Chandler (Nov. 12).

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