Former N.C. Chief Justice Takes Up Prisoner's Case
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
A North Carolina man who was convicted of murder two decades ago with the help of now-discredited FBI scientific testimony took his quest for a new trial to the state's Supreme Court yesterday -- and enlisted the court's former chief justice to argue on his behalf.
Lee Wayne Hunt, who has been in prison for 22 years, was convicted in 1986 of the execution-style killings of a Fayetteville, N.C., couple. The sole physical evidence linking Hunt to the crime scene came from an FBI scientist, who testified that he used bullet-lead analysis -- a chemical technique that compares the lead makeup of bullets -- to match bullet fragments from the victims to a box of ammunition from Hunt's co-defendant, Jerry Cashwell.
I. Beverly Lake Jr. said yesterday that he decided to take Hunt's case after learning about the problems with the FBI technique, which were disclosed last week after a joint investigation by The Washington Post and "60 Minutes."
"The case had very scant evidence and was very problematic in several respects," said Lake, who retired from the court last December.
The case against Hunt, an admitted marijuana dealer, included circumstantial evidence from a former co-defendant and a prison inmate. Neither witnessed the killings, but they implicated Hunt after receiving plea deals.
The joint investigation showed that the FBI did not alert defendants after it stopped using bullet-lead science in 2005, and it acknowledged that three decades of expert testimony about matching bullets was not scientifically supported.
Cashwell, who also was convicted in the killings, committed suicide in prison. That prompted his longtime lawyer, Staples Hughes, to come forward and divulge that his client had told him that he had committed the murders alone and that Hunt was not involved.
Prosecutors have acknowledged that the FBI's testimony in the case is no longer considered scientifically valid but have argued that the testimony of the other witnesses still supports Hunt's conviction. The trial court has refused to grant Hunt a new trial. Instead, it referred Hughes to the state bar for possible violations of attorney-client privilege because he came forward with Cashwell's statements.
Lake said he hopes his involvement in Hunt's case will have an impact on his former colleagues because he wrote the Supreme Court's opinion last year declaring that a defense attorney can be forced to tell prosecutors about privileged information from a client if the client is dead.
"It makes no sense that a lawyer can be required to divulge information from a dead client to the state but then not be allowed to do the same if it helps a defendant," Lake said.
In the appeal, filed yesterday, Lake and Hunt's two other lawyers -- University of North Carolina law professors Richard Rosen and Kenneth Broun -- asked the high court to intervene in Hunt's case "to decide questions of exceptional importance and to correct a manifest injustice."
Lake, a lifelong Republican, also was instrumental in the creation last year of North Carolina's Innocence Commission, which reviews cases of convicts who say they are innocent.
Lake said Hunt's case is the latest of several in the state that raise questions about people being wrongly convicted. "We have the best criminal justice system in the world, but obviously it still can be improved," he said.