On February 21, 1989, the body of Lonnie Malone was found in a culvert of Bug Hollow Road in Sumner County, Tennessee. He had been stabbed to death.
Malone was known as a drug dealer and police began investigating Robert Spurlock, 22, and Ronnie Marshall
because Malone was believed to have sold drugs he bought from them.
Detectives searched Spurlock’s residence and vehicles, but found nothing to link him to the crime.
The murder went unsolved for more than a year. On April 27, 1990, Sumner County sheriff’s detectives obtained a statement from Henry “Junior” Apple, a drug dealer then locked up for failing to pay child support. The statement implicated Spurlock and Marshall in the murder—Apple said he was in Spurlock’s truck when Spurlock returned from the killing with blood on his shirt.
On April 29, 1990, when the officers pressured Apple to say he had witnessed the murder instead of only having knowledge of it, Apple told a jail guard in a conversation that was recorded that he was worried the officers would not keep their agreement to release him.
The following day, Apple gave a recorded statement that he had witnessed Spurlock and Marshall murder Malone. On this recording, Apple also stated that this was the first time he had told anyone what he had seen.
In return, Apple was released from custody.
Spurlock and Marshall were indicted for murder on May 9, 1990.
The men went on trial separately. Marshall was convicted on September 27, 1990 and Spurlock was convicted on October 17, 1990. In both trials, the prosecution case rested virtually solely on the testimony of Apple. Spurlock and Marshall were both sentenced to life in prison.
After the trials, attorneys for the defendants learned of the April 27 and April 29 recordings of Apple and moved for a new trial, alleging the prosecution had committed misconduct for failing to turn them over to the defense.
On January 8, 1992, at the hearing on the motion for new trial in Spurlock's case, one of the police officers said that the recordings were at the Drug Task Force office before he took them into his own possession, and that District Attorney Ray Whitley was aware of the existence of these tapes.
Although the motion for a new trial was denied, on May 20, 1993, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the convictions, finding that Whitley knew of the April 27 and April 29 recordings and had suborned the perjury of Apple and a police officer who testified about taking the statement from Apple. The court found that the tapes had knowingly been withheld by the prosecution.
In September 1993, Tommy Thompson was appointed District Attorney General Pro Tempore for Sumner County, Tennessee to handle the retrials.
Instead of investigating the court of appeals findings, Thompson sent a letter to an investigator for the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility, which had conducted an investigation into alleged prosecutorial misconduct following the 1990 trial. In the letter, Thompson denied that Whitley had committed or had knowledge of any wrongdoing.
In 1995, Thompson re-prosecuted the case. Marshall accepted a deal to plead no contest in return for a 10 year sentence, while Spurlock went to trial.
At trial, Whitley testified that the failure to produce the April 27 and April 29 recordings was merely oversight and that the tapes had been locked up “from the time that they were made until the time-until some time they were disclosed to me.” Apple also testified, relating the same story he told at the first trials.
On January 13, 1995, Spurlock was convicted of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Shortly thereafter, a re-investigation of the murder was commenced and evidence was developed implicating a man named Michael Dancer in the murder.
On March 5, 1996, Dancer was indicted for the murder of Malone. He later pleaded guilty to the murder.
On March 6, 1996, Marshall’s and Spurlock’s convictions were vacated and they were released.
– Maurice Possley