The body was found in Gum Swamp, a twisting finger of black water bordered by leaning walls of longleaf pine near South Carolina’s northern border. A local fisherman, hunting for catfish and perch, spotted the man face down in the creek tangled on a branch, as a summer thunderstorm cracked overhead. It was Aug. 3, 1993.
He was fully dressed but missing shoes. Authorities from the nearby town of McColl, S.C., could find no identification. The heat and water had badly eaten away his features. A later autopsy determined a single .38 bullet was sunk into the anonymous victim’s upper right breast. The county was rural, its coroner a part-timer who owned a construction company. He noticed expensive dental work inside the corpse’s mouth, so the jaw bones were saved, as well as the hands, in case anyone stepped forward to identify the remains.
Within days, South Carolina authorities realized the body did not belong to a local or a drifter but to James Jordan, the father of NBA supernova Michael Jordan.
In 1996, two young men from the area, Daniel Green and Larry Demery, were sent to prison for life for their roles in James Jordan’s death, in what prosecutors described as a deadly carjacking by two thrill-seeking troublemakers. That story, however, could be upended soon.
This week in North Carolina, Green and his attorneys appeared before Superior Court Judge Winston Gilchrist to argue for a new trial. Green, who has admitted his involvement in disposing Jordan’s body but has maintained his innocence in the murder since the arrest, has placed a mountain of legal issues and new evidence before the court, including ballistics, now-refuted blood evidence and shocking ties between local drug traffickers and police steering the Jordan investigation.
“It’s been stressful for him,” Christine Mumma, Green’s attorney with the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, told The Washington Post in an interview. “He’s been feeling like his voice has not been heard.”
The state and the prosecutor who originally tried the case have maintained Green’s motion is meritless.
“He’s never going to own up to what he did," Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt told the Chicago Tribune in August. "He just won’t accept it.”
According to the Associated Press, Gilchrist announced Wednesday he will make a ruling at a later date.
Michael Jordan was sitting on the Mount Everest peak of global fame and fortune when his father was killed. Jordan had led the Chicago Bulls to three straight championships, and his turbocharged competitiveness and ambition came from his father, who basked in his son’s achievements. As the Tribune reported earlier this year, James Jordan wore his son’s 1986 NBA all-star ring. And the elder Jordan’s red 1992 Lexus SC400 was adorned with a vanity license plate — UNC0023 — that celebrated both Michael’s alma mater, the University of North Carolina, and his jersey number.
James Jordan was last seen alive motoring off in the same car on July 22, 1993, leaving a co-worker’s funeral in Wilmington, N.C.
Daniel Green was born in Philadelphia but moved to North Carolina’s Robeson County when he was in the third grade. His speech tripping up on a stutter, he was lonely and self-conscious until meeting Larry Demery, a classmate from a local Native American family. The two quickly became close.
“When you got a person who won’t pick on you, when he is patient and not suggest words for you . . . he was a friend all the time,” Green has explained.
But Green says that bond is what got him involved in the Jordan murder.
Green’s account of the night James Jordan died, and his role in dumping his body in Gum Swamp, have been consistent since his first trial.
On July 23, 1993, Green and Demery were at a party at a friend’s house. According to motions filed on Green’s behalf, around 1:30 a.m. Demery left the festivities on his own while Green stayed behind. Later, Demery returned visibly upset. He asked Green to come along with him, and together the two left the party at 4:30 a.m. for a canal bank near a local drug and prostitution hot zone near a Quality Inn. Demery explained he had gone earlier in the night for a drug deal. Instead, Demery had gotten into a confrontation with a man in a red Lexus and fatally shot him. Together, the two placed the dead man just over the state line in South Carolina, but not before taking his possessions.
In the days following the murder, both men used the Lexus and the car’s phone. The calls eventually led investigators to both Demery and Green.
Demery pleaded guilty to charges related to the murder and agreed to testify against Green. When Green’s murder trial opened in January 1996, the state’s entire case rested on Demery’s account. He told the jury that both he and Green had encountered Jordan sleeping in his parked car off the highway. Green shot Jordan as the victim was just waking up in the front seat, Demery said.
Two pieces of testimony bolstered Demery’s story. A state forensic investigator named Jennifer Elwell told jurors that blood was found inside the Lexus, consistent with Demery’s account that Green shot Jordan there. “It is my opinion that you do have blood,” she told the jury, according to a court filing.
Another state investigator introduced the shirt Jordan had been wearing when he was killed. The clothing, the agent testified, showed a bullet hole surrounded by a “dark ring” consistent with gunshot residue in the upper right chest area, where the fatal shot entered.
But now, Green’s attorneys are calling those two key pieces of testimony into question.
According to the filing, Elwell had not been accurate in her testimony about the blood testing. In fact, while two initial tests suggested there could be blood in the car, four follow-up tests failed to find any. And Green’s original trial lawyers never learned about those negative tests.
In 2011, Elwell told Green’s defense team that she was no longer definitive about her testimony. “I didn’t know . . . whether it was blood or not blood,” she said, according to the court filing. “It could have been anything.”
The blood evidence in the case was also destroyed almost immediately after the trial, according to Green’s motion. Elwell later admitted it was out of the norm, and the head of the lab also told the legal team the evidence had been destroyed without his knowledge.
The shirt evidence is also now questionable. According to Green’s court filing, when a forensic pathologist originally performed an autopsy on Jordan in 1993, his report noted there was no hole in the clothing corresponding with the bullet wound in the upper chest. Instead, there were three holes lower in the shirt, suggesting it was pulled up during the shooting. Yet, a second report introduced at trial did mention a hole in the upper chest. Green’s attorney now suggests the second report bolstering the state’s theory of the crime is suspect.
“The absence of a hole in the right chest area, coupled with the three holes in the lower part of the shirt, contradict the State’s theory that Mr. Jordan was lying in his car when he was shot,” Green’s filing argues. “It also gave strength to the defense theory that there was an altercation between Demery and Mr. Jordan."
Green’s motion for a new trial also hinges on mistakes and errors made by his attorneys during the 1996 trial.
Despite telling the jury they would provide an alibi for Green during the murder, the attorneys failed to adequately put on enough witnesses who could say Green was still at the party after Demery left, his attorneys now argue. Trial counsel also failed to recognize that a juror had previously been accused by one of Green’s witnesses of sexual assault.
But by far the most troubling aspects alleged in Green’s new trial motion are the lengths investigators went to steer the Jordan case away from figures directly connected to the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office, the agency that handled the arrests.
Records indicate that on the night of the murder, a call was made from Jordan’s car phone to a local number belonging to Hubert Larry Deese, who worked with Demery at a mobile-home company located within a mile of where Jordan’s body was dumped. Deese was also friends with members of the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office, including Mark Locklear, the head of the agency’s narcotics unit and one of the lead investigators on the Jordan murder.
Deese was also the son of Hubert Stone, the sheriff of Robeson County.
And Deese was also a major drug trafficker at the time. Seven months after Jordan’s murder, federal authorities arrested Deese on conspiracy to traffic cocaine, according to records. “He wasn’t no street dealer,” Locklear later told Green’s legal team. “We’re talking pounds and kilos.”
But those connections were never detailed to Green’s original defense team, according to the filings, despite the fact that authorities knew of the links. Green’s attorneys allege Demery was working for Deese at the time of the murder — a suggestion Locklear himself later admitted he had no knowledge of but “wouldn’t surprise” him.
Underscoring the problematic link between law enforcement and Demery, Green’s lawyers point out that investigators interviewed all the people Demery and Green called on Jordan’s car phone — all except Deese.
“I don’t have an answer,” Locklear told Green’s lawyers when asked why Deese was not interviewed in the Jordan case, according to the court filings.
In the early 2000s, the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office was caught up in a federal corruption probe called “Operation Tarnished Badge.” Twenty-two officers were charged with crimes including perjury, drug trafficking and money laundering.
Neither Locklear nor Sheriff Stone were caught up in the federal probe, and Stone died in 2008. His son Deese served out his four-year federal sentence and was released in 1998. He has since denied any involvement in Jordan’s death.
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