Shortly before midnight on Monday, September 18, 2000, 51-year-old Walter Bowman was shot and killed at his home in Fairview, North Carolina.
Bowman had gone to bed around 10:00 p.m., while his son, Shaun Bowman, Shaun’s girlfriend, Wanda Holloway, and a family friend, Tony Gibson, stayed up to watch television in the living room. At around 11:35 p.m., three men entered the home through an unlocked door, apparently intending to rob anyone inside. The men were African American, wore gloves, and had bandanas over their faces. They were armed with a shotgun and pistols. Tony Gibson said a fourth man might have been waiting outside the home. One of the intruders pointed a gun at Shaun Bowman’s head, and another man dragged Wanda Holloway into the living room after she tried to run to the kitchen.
Walter Bowman opened the door from the bedroom, then shut it when he saw the robbers. The intruder with a shotgun fired a shot at the bedroom door. The shooter then kicked the door open and shouted, “I shot him, I shot him!” The men left the house without completing the robbery and drove away. Walter Bowman died from a shotgun wound to his abdomen before he could get to the hospital.
The Investigation and Guilty Pleas
All three witnesses gave descriptions of the intruders to investigators. Police believed that Shaun Bowman was a drug dealer and that he was the target of a robbery that turned into a murder. Drug paraphernalia, pills and marijuana were found at the Bowman residence.
Shortly after the crime, a Crime Stoppers tip reported that the assailants were Robert Rutherford, Bradford Summey and Lacy “J.J.” Pickens. The Sheriff’s Office report on the tip noted that J.J. Pickens was in custody at the time of the murder and that as a result, the investigation of the three men was halted. In fact, although he was listed as an inmate at the Buncombe County Jail, Pickens was only confined on weekends and was free on work release during the week.
Other Crime Stoppers tips and statements led police to investigate and eventually charge six other men, Kenneth Kagonyera, Robert Wilcoxson, Larry Williams, Jr., Damian Mills, Teddy Isbell, and Aaron Brewton, as the assailants.
Isbell at first told police that he heard Kagonyera bragging about the robbery during a dice game. Isbell said that Kagonyera had stated that Wilcoxson shot Bowman when things got “messed up” during the robbery. But Isbell’s story changed during later interviews with police; he first admitted helping to plan the robbery, then said he was present during the shooting, and later claimed he had gotten out of the car before the group arrived at Bowman’s home. Williams, only 16 years old at the time of the crime, also gave several wildly inconsistent statements implicating himself, Wilcoxson, Kagonyera, and others.
On November 30, 2001, Kagonyera confessed during an interview with the district attorney. Kagonyera stated that he, Wilcoxson, Brewton, Mills, Isbell, and Williams had committed the robbery, and that Wilcoxson had shot Bowman. Wilcoxson never admitted any involvement in the crime. Despite their confessions, none of the codefendants produced any evidence that corroborated their involvement in the robbery, and testing on DNA recovered from bandanas and gloves found along the road near the murder scene excluded all six men.
Four of the six pled guilty to second-degree murder: Damian Mills (who also pled to attempted armed robbery and to conspiracy to commit armed robbery) on June 26, 2001; Kenneth Kagonyera on December 13, 2001; Larry Williams on February 25, 2002; and Robert Wilcoxson on August 15, 2002. All four received sentences between 10 and 15 years. Charges against Brewton were dismissed on August 26, 2002, and Teddy Isbell pled guilty to conspiracy to commit armed robbery on December 11, 2003, and was sentenced to 3 years.
Attorneys for Kagonyera and Wilcoxson later testified at post-conviction hearings that their clients entered plea agreements to avoid the possible death sentences they would face if convicted at trial.
The Innocence Inquiry Commission Review
In 2003, Robert Rutherford confessed to a federal agent that he, Bradford Summey, and Lacy Pickens had committed the crime. In 2007, a CODIS match revealed that DNA obtained from one of the recovered bandanas came from Bradford Summey.
On August 26, 2008, Kagonyera submitted a claim of factual innocence to the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission. Wilcoxson submitted a similar claim on November 22, 2010. The Commission held a hearing on both claims in April 2011, and unanimously found sufficient evidence to order review of the case by a judicial panel.
Along with Rutherford’s confession and the DNA match, the Commission also reviewed a segment of a security video taken by sheriff’s investigators from a convenience store near the Bowman home. A witness who was at the convenience store the night of the murder said that he saw three men fitting the description of the robbers drive up to the store in a white or cream colored Buick or Oldsmobile, around 11:30 p.m.; that the men stayed only long enough to get gas; and appeared to be acting suspiciously.
Investigators for the Commission noticed that a segment in the middle of the store security tape switched inexplicably from images of the store to a recording of a soap opera. Jamie Lau, an investigator with the Commission, testified that a three-minute section was taped over with an episode of “The Guiding Light” the day before warrants were issued for the six men who were charged with Bowman’s murder. Lau said sheriff’s investigators obtained the surveillance tape from the convenience store the day after Bowman was killed. By reviewing soap opera transcripts, Commission investigators learned that the episode aired on Oct. 23, 2000, the same day a detective turned the tape over to an evidence room manager. Investigators for the Commission concluded that the missing portion might have shown a clear view of the faces of the men who killed Bowman, but they could not determine how the erasure occurred. Lau also testified that the remainder of the tape provided evidence of the true killers’ identities. The tape shows images of an unusual car—a 1971 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme—the same make and model owned by Lacy “J.J.” Pickens.
On September 23, 2011, a panel of three judges of the Superior Court of Buncombe County ruled that Kagonyera and Wilcoxson were innocent. Both men were released from jail within hours.
In September 2013, Wilcoxson filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Buncombe County. The lawsuit was settled in 2015 for $5,125,000.
In September 2014, Kagonyera also filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the county. The county settled Kagonyera's lawsuit in April 2015 for $515,000.
Ron Moore, the District Attorney at the time of Kagonyera’s and Wilcoxson’s exoneration, continued to maintain that Mills, Williams and Isbell, all of whom had served their sentences and been released, were guilty. In the spring of 2014, Todd Williams, an Ashville, North Carolina, defense attorney, defeated Moore, Buncombe County’s top prosecutor for 24 years, in the race for District Attorney.
Williams ordered that his staff conduct a full review of the Bowman murder case. On September 30, 2015, Williams and defense attorneys for Mills, Williams and Isbell appeared in the courtroom of Judge Joseph Crosswhite. The prosecution and defense agreed that the DNA evidence indicated the defendants were not involved in the crime. The judge listened to brief statements from the lawyers, retired to chambers for 10 minutes and returned to declare Mills, Williams and Isbell factually innocent. The convictions were vacated and the charges were dismissed.
Earlier in the year, Buncombe County agreed to settle a lawsuit brought by Isbell, Williams and Mills. Williams received $750,000, Mills received $512,250 and Isbell received $240,000.
Readers who wish to learn more about this case may view the public record from the hearing of the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission at:
— Michael Shaffer and Maurice Possley