12/15/06 — Ex-death row inmate could get new trial

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Ex-death row inmate could get new trial

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on December 15, 2006 1:45 PM

A Duplin County man, convicted of first-degree murder in 1993 and sentenced to death, came a little closer Monday to getting a new trial after U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle denied a motion filed by the North Carolina Attorney General's Office asking him to reconsider his September decision.

In that decision, the judge threw out the death sentence imposed on Levon Jones for the 1987 robbery and murder of Duplin County resident Leamon Grady.

Jones was brought to trial and convicted six years after the fact, based largely on the testimony of his girlfriend Lovely Lorden.

Boyle overturned Jones' death sentence after finding that he had been represented by ineffective counsel -- the basis of the latest appeal by Jones' attorneys to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina.

They claimed that his original attorneys performed inadequately at both the guilt-innocence and the sentencing phases of his trial. Boyle agreed.

"Jones received two appointed attorneys that spent virtually no time or effort investigating the offense or his background," Boyle wrote in his September decision. "Counsel's deficient conduct undermines any confidence in the jury's verdicts and renders fundamentally unfair both the guilt-innocence and penalty phases of Jones' trial."

Specifically, Boyle found that in neither situation did Jones' counsel take the necessary steps to protect him.

They did not perform background checks on his accuser, Ms. Lorden, question her inconsistent stories or investigate the possibility of other suspects. They also did not take advantage of the prosecutor's open-document policy and they did not provide the jury with mitigating evidence about Jones' mental health status.

Jones has since been diagnosed with mental retardation, delusional disorder and alcohol and cocaine dependence.

But because of a technicality, the State asked Boyle to reconsider that decision, arguing that the ineffective counsel plea made by Jones should not have been considered by Boyle, a federal judge, because it had not been properly introduced in state court.

Because of lack of precedent in similar cases, however, Boyle found that he did have standing to review the case, and upheld his ruling, which included a provision that Jones be set free unless the State initiated action against him within 180 days.

But Boyle also denied an appeal filed by Jones himself, asking for immediate release from prison.

He determined that the appropriate relief was a new trial.

"The Court has determined that the State should be given a reasonable period of time to correct the constitutional violation in this case by initiating proceedings for a new trial free from constitutional defects," Boyle wrote in his Dec. 11 decision. "Any decision to release Jones on bail pending the outcome of such proceedings is within the discretion of the state court."

It was a decision that pleased Ken Rose, an attorney at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham who is currently handling Jones' defense.

"We think that Judge Boyle kept his eye on the ball, did the right thing and followed the law. Because there are serious questions about Mr. Jones' guilt, he did the right thing and remanded it for a new trial," Rose said.

He does not know what course of action the State might take next, but he hopes they will agree to a new trial.

"The ruling is grounded in strong considerations of justice," Rose continued. "We're not sure that Mr. Jones committed the crime, and why would you want to execute a man you're not sure committed the murder."

Current Duplin County District Attorney Dewey Hudson could not be reached for comment and Special Deputy Attorney General Valerie Spalding refused to comment because of the case's open status.