Man freed after 15 years on death row
By Steve Herring
Published in News on May 4, 2008 2:01 AM
KENANSVILLE -- After nearly 15 years in prison, most of which were spent on death row, Levon Junior "Bo" Jones is now a free man -- and saying he is innocent of the crime that put him there.
Lillie Sanders of Magnolia said she could hardly contain her excitement Friday afternoon as Dewey Hudson, district attorney for the Fourth Prosecutorial District, read the words that released her 49-year-old nephew from prison.
But once the press conference was over, Ms. Sanders and her sister, Margaret Urso, swayed from side to side as they sang and clapped their hands as they shouted "praise God." Less than 30 minutes later, they walked out of the Duplin County Jail with their nephew.
Jones, surrounded by family, supporters and his attorneys, and followed by the media, was freed after Hudson, who originally prosecuted him, decided not to ask for a new trial in the 1987 murder and robbery of Leamon Grady in the Blizzards Crossroads community in Duplin County southeast of Mount Olive.
Jones' voice was soft and barely audible as he gave brief responses to questions shouted out by the media.
"What do you have to say to those people have said you were guilty all of this time," one reporter asked.
"Well, I am innocent is what I have got to say," he said.
His response to how he felt to be out of prison was a simple, "It feels fine."
Jones, who was not in the courtroom when Hudson made his announcement, was convicted in November 1993 on charges of first-degree murder, robbery with a dangerous weapon and conspiracy. He was sentenced to death.
"We are ready for him, we are ready for him," Ms. Sanders said as she was surrounded by family after the announcement. "I was looking for the (deputy) sheriff to ask 'when can I holler, when can I holler.'"
And, she added, she is ready to move on.
"I just want to say to the families, let's forgive everybody who was involved so that we can close up this dark hole and go on."
Ms. Sanders said she had never believed for a minute that her nephew was guilty of the crime, "Because if Bo Jones had been guilty he would have stood up to your face and said 'hey I am guilty.' That is the kind of child that he was."
She said that it didn't matter to her that Hudson and others still think that he is guilty.
During his comments Friday in the Duplin County Superior Courtroom, Hudson said at the time Jones was first tried, (Hudson) lacked the leeway district attorneys now have in regards to seeking the death sentence.
Even as he dismissed the charges, Hudson said he still believes Jones is guilty.
Hudson said he would not have sought the death penalty had Jones been tried today.
He agreed with Boyle that Jones had not been adequately represented at his sentencing hearing. However, Hudson said he thinks Jones received a fair trial and was properly defended.
Hudson said the state's long delay in vacating Jones' convictions made it impossible to seek a new trial.
"It has taken 15 years for the court system to make the determination that Mr. Jones' original counsel was ineffective," Hudson said. "As a result of this delay, the state has been severely handcuffed in its obligation to prosecute Mr. Jones for the murder of Leamon Grady.
"This extensive delay has resulted in the death of key witnesses in the case."
Hudson noted that Jones' conviction had hinged on testimony by Jones' then-girlfriend, Lovely Lorden.
And even though Ms. Lorden recently recanted her testimony, Hudson said he still believes she told the truth during Jones' trial.
Jones' road to freedom began in 2006 when his attorneys filed motions in federal district court alleging that his trial counsel had been ineffective.
U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle agreed and vacated Jones' convictions.
Boyle further ordered a new trial on the murder and robbery charges.
Jones remained in custody and was returned to Duplin County in January 2007 pending a new trial.
However, in March of this year, Jones' attorneys provided the district attorney's office with Ms. Lorden's affidavit in which she contradicted some of her earlier testimony.
At Friday's press conference, Hudson noted that three men had been tried in the case. Jones was convicted and sentenced to death. Another, Earnest Matthews, had pleaded guilty to manslaughter and had served a 20-year sentence. A third man, Larry Lamb, is serving a life sentence.
Hudson said he would not be surprised to see attorneys file motions on Lamb's behalf in light of developments in the Jones' case.
Following Hudson's comments, one of Jones' defense attorneys, Ernest "Buddy" Connor of Greenville, said he disagreed with Hudson. He said Ms. Lorden's statements had changed several times during the course of the original investigation and trial.
However, he had praise for Hudson.
"I am not here to debate Mr. Hudson," he said. "I want to tell you this, it takes courage to make the decision that Mr. Hudson made, and I don't want to take anything away from that."
ACLU lawyers on Jones' defense team said they planned to release a point-by-point rebuttal of Hudson's comments. It will be posted on the organization's Website at www.aclu.org.
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