In 1995, Danny Cook was found shot to death in his Marshville, North Carolina jewelry store. After receiving an anonymous tip, police arrested Jonathon Hoffman in January 1996. There was no physical evidence linking Hoffman to the crime, but three witnesses testified against him at trial, including a folk healer who claimed he had sold Hoffman a special root to keep him from getting arrested. The star witness, however, was Hoffman’s cousin, Johnell Porter, who said that Hoffman had confessed to him that he committed the murder. In November 1996, Hoffman, who is African-American, was convicted of first-degree murder by an all-white jury, and sentenced to death. He argued on appeal that the prosecution discriminated by race in selecting his jury, but his conviction was affirmed.
Hoffman’s lawyers then pursued claims of prosecutorial misconduct. At a hearing in 2004 they presented newly discovered evidence that, in exchange for his testimony against Hoffman, Johnell Porter had received immunity from federal charges and thousands of dollars in cash – all of which was concealed from Hoffman’s defense – and on April 30 of that year a North Carolina trial court ordered a new trial. In March 2006, while Hoffman was waiting for his retrial, Porter officially recanted his trial testimony, saying he made up the story because he wanted to get back at Hoffman for stealing money from him. Twenty months later, the district attorney finally dismissed all charges and Hoffman was released on December 11, 2007.
– Alexandra Gross