At 3:00 a.m. on February 28, 1987, a local bootlegger named Leamon Grady was found dead in his home in Duplin County, North Carolina. He had been shot twice in the chest while sleeping.
For several years, no one was charged with the crime. In August of 1990, after a reward was posted for information leading to an arrest, a woman named Lovely Lorden began meeting with investigators at the Duplin County Sheriff’s Department. Lorden claimed that Grady had been murdered by her ex-boyfriend, Levon Jones. She had turned Jones in for an assault the year before, and he was serving time for that charge. According to Lorden, in the early hours of February 28, 1987, she rode with Jones and two other men to Grady’s house, where they intended to rob him. Lorden stayed in the car while the three men went inside; Jones was carrying a pistol. Lorden heard two gun shots, then the men returned to the car and they drove away. Jones was charged with first-degree murder on August 14, 1992.
Jones’s defense attorneys – one of whom was related to the victim—did almost nothing to prepare for his trial. No witnesses were interviewed and no motions were filed. There was evidence that another suspect had been alone with Grady on the night of the crime and then lied to police before leaving town, but this evidence was never presented to the jury. There was no physical evidence linking Jones to the crime, and police never tested the physical evidence that was found at the scene, including a gun and a bloody footprint. Lorden was the star witness for the prosecution. The jury found Jones guilty and sentenced him to death on November 8, 1993, and the conviction was upheld by the North Carolina Supreme Court in 1996.
In 2006, a federal court overturned Jones’s conviction, because of the ineffective assistance of his defense attorney. Prosecutors began preparing for a retrial. Then, in December 2007, Lovely Lorden recanted her 1983 testimony. In an affidavit prepared by Jones’s attorneys, Lorden said that much of her testimony was “simply not true.” She said law officers coached her on what to say and threatened her with prosecution if she did not cooperate. She had collected a $4,000 reward from the governor’s office for providing clues that led to Jones’s arrest.
In light of this new evidence, the district attorney dropped all charges against Jones on May 2, 2008, and he was released from prison the same day.
Two other men were also convicted for their involvement in Grady’s murder. One, Larry Lamb, is currently serving a life sentence – though Lorden’s recantation casts doubt on his guilt, as she was also the key witness for the prosecution in his trial. The other man, Ernest Matthews, pled no-contest, received a 20-year sentence, and was released in 2001.
– Alexandra Gross