Charles "Tony" Walker, who came within hours of being executed by injection in December 2004, has a chance of being released from prison more than a decade after being sentenced to death for a 1992 murder.
Walker was spared execution after his lawyers discovered new evidence while rummaging through a box of documents. The box contained a police file number that didn't match the others. The file yielded evidence that raised doubts about Walker's culpability in the death of Elmon Tito Davidson Jr.--evidence that was never heard by the jury, according to Walker's lawyers, Paul M. Green of Durham and Jonathan Megerian of Asheboro.
The new evidence was considered by Guilford County Superior Court Judge John O. Craig III, the same judge who, based on a different legal issue, authorized the 2004 stay that kept Walker from being executed then.
In a 42-page order issued in mid-May, Craig vacated the 41-year-old Walker's death sentence and ordered a new trial. Walker's trial was prejudiced by the nondisclosure of the records, the judge ruled.
"There is a reasonable probability that the result of the trial would have been different had they been disclosed, and the court's confidence in the trial verdicts has been undermined," he wrote.
Walker is alive because Craig is a "courageous and hard-working judge," Megerian said.
"This guy's life was saved just by a stroke of luck, or maybe it was the intervention of the Holy Spirit," Megerian said. "But whatever it was, it wasn't the system really working the way it was supposed to."
No physical evidence linked Walker to the murder. Walker, who has a history of mental illness, was convicted solely on the testimony of co-defendants who received lesser sentences for cooperating or who were not prosecuted. Davidson's body was never recovered. The new evidence now points to the likelihood that a witness lied during testimony about a related crime, according to Walker's lawyers.
Walker's case calls into question assurances from prosecutors who claim capital cases are handled carefully, Green said.
"This case shows what everyone inside the system already knows," Green said. "The justice you get isn't any more perfect and reliable than the flawed human beings who make up the system, and that can include police investigators who think it's OK to send a man to death row on false testimony. Charles Walker came within 16 hours of being executed in 2004 after all that so-called careful review. The police knew about the perjury during the trial in 1995 ... but we didn't find out about it until 2005, after Charles was supposed to be dead already."
The district attorney who prosecuted Walker 11 years ago says the state will appeal Craig's ruling back to the N.C. Supreme Court. If the appeal is denied, the state will be faced with retrying Walker with much weaker evidence or offering a deal that could result in Walker's release from prison.
Since his incarceration, Walker's mother and his aunt have died, said Walker's cousin, Vera Jordan, who lives in Winston-Salem.
"I feel like there was an injustice done to him," Jordan said. "Mistakes were made at the first trial, and he will have justice and he will be walking out of prison after more than 13 years."
If Walker is retried, Megerian and Green could be appointed trial counsel.
"It absolutely boggles the mind that you could convict a person of a first-degree murder and sentence him to death solely on the testimony of co-defendants and snitches," Megerian said. "Everybody's getting a deal, and the police know and have in their possession evidence that the guys who are testifying and putting him away are liars. It just makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck."