By John Solomon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 18, 2007
SMITHFIELD, N.C. -- Lee Wayne Hunt readily admits that he once was a major marijuana dealer who so antagonized police that they used to call his fortified home "Fort Apache," mocking his Native American heritage. But Hunt is adamant about one thing: He never committed the two execution-style killings that sent him to prison for life.
He vividly remembers the day 21 years ago when an FBI scientist walked into a North Carolina courthouse and told jurors that he was able to match the lead content of bullets found at the crime scene to that of bullets in a box connected to Hunt's co-defendant. The testimony provided the sole forensic evidence to corroborate the prosecution's circumstantial case.
"It was like him bringin' a gun in and say that this is the murder weapon that was used to kill these people," Hunt said of the FBI testimony. "It's the same thing. He said that these are the bullets that come out of this box that killed these people."
In 2005, the bureau ended its bullet-lead-matching technique after experts concluded that the very type of testimony given in Hunt's case -- matching a crime-scene bullet to those in a suspect's box -- was scientifically invalid.
Hunt, 48, said in a prison interview with The Washington Post and "60 Minutes" that he was never informed by the FBI, and that his attorney discovered the flawed science while attending a conference.
"We wouldn't know about it today if we were waiting to hear from anybody else," said Richard Rosen, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has taken up Hunt's bid to win freedom. "I think anybody involved in a case involving fraudulent scientific evidence ought to know."
State prosecutors now concede in court filings that the FBI's testimony was unreliable, but they argue that the conviction should stand because two witnesses implicated Hunt after receiving plea deals.
Now those accounts have been questioned.
In 1986, Hunt and a co-defendant, Jerry Cashwell, were convicted in separate trials of killing Roland and Lisa Matthews, who were shot execution-style, their throats slit, in their home on a dirt road near Fayetteville two years earlier. Jurors spared Hunt the death penalty.
Prosecutors argued that the murders were punishment for Roland Matthews's theft of marijuana from Hunt's drug ring. Gene Williford, an associate of Hunt's who received immunity, testified that Hunt had told him that he intended to teach Matthews "a lesson" for allegedly stealing drugs.
Williford, who is now dead, also testified that he dropped Hunt off at the murder scene and that he later picked up Hunt and Cashwell, who both appeared to be wearing bloody clothing. A few days later, Williford told jurors, he and Hunt were present when another member of the drug ring referred to the killings, allegedly stating that Lisa Matthews had "begged us not to kill her."
Williford, however, did not witness the killings and never claimed that Hunt had admitted to them. Hunt's mother and aunt said that he was at home with them that night.
A prison informant, who received a plea deal on separate charges, testified that Hunt told him some details about the murders, including that the couple was "killed over drug money." A third person testified that he received a box of bullets from Cashwell after the killings. The FBI matched bullets from that box to the crime-scene bullets.
The circumstantial evidence stood unchallenged for two decades. Then the unexpected happened.
Staples Hughes, the attorney who had represented Cashwell throughout, came forward to declare that his client had told him that he committed the murders alone and that Hunt was not involved.
Hughes, the state's top appellate lawyer for indigent defendants, said he decided to come forward after Cashwell committed suicide in prison in 2003. Before that, Hughes said, he believed that attorney-client privilege precluded him from disclosing his client's admission.
"It bothered me most particularly when Mr. Hunt was being tried," Hughes said in an interview last month. "And it's bothered me ever since. There wasn't anything I could do about it. But I knew they were trying a guy who didn't do it."
Hughes said that shortly after Cashwell's arrest, his client provided him with a detailed confession: Cashwell, who was hard of hearing, was watching television with the victims when he became enraged over the TV volume. "He just exploded. And he shot them and cut their throats," Hughes said. "It had nothing to do with drugs."
Cashwell "remained consistent" for two decades in saying that he committed the murders alone, Hughes said. Shortly before his suicide, Cashwell said that "he felt bad about what happened to Lee Wayne," Hughes added.
Despite the developments with Hughes and the FBI science, the trial judge has refused to grant Hunt a new trial, saying that the new evidence was not compelling enough. Instead, the judge has referred Hughes to the state bar for possibly violating attorney-client privilege.
"We've got evidence of innocence, and they're refusing to listen to it based on technicalities," Rosen said.
The prosecutor, James J. Coman, is now North Carolina's deputy attorney general and the man credited earlier this year with ending the controversial rape prosecution of Duke University lacrosse players. He declined an interview request, but his office, in a statement, cited the judge's ruling that the bullet-lead evidence was of "minimal importance."
Hunt is serving time at the Johnston Correctional Institution, a sprawling rural prison complex less than an hour from Raleigh. Prisoners in tan jumpsuits roam freely in the dormitory-style facility, which often is engulfed by the sound of gunfire from a nearby law enforcement firing range.
Hunt has taught himself how to read and write. "I'm not as bitter as I used to be about being put in this prison," he said, recounting how he missed his mother's funeral and his son's childhood.
"I never told nobody that I was an angel, that I didn't do this and I didn't do that," he said. "What I've said from the word get-go is that I ain't never killed nobody."