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 once in the chest.
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. Lorden gave five different statements with conflicting details, but ultimately would testify that in the early hours of February 28, 1987, she rode with Jones and two other men—Larry Lamb and Ernest Matthews—to Grady’s house, where they intended to rob him.
Lorden said she 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, Lamb and Matthews were charged with first-degree murder on August 14, 1992.
Lamb went on trial first in Duplin County Superior Court. Lorden was the star witness for the prosecution. There was no physical evidence linking any of the defendants to the crime. The murder weapon was never found. 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. Lamb’s attorney did not interview any witnesses or conduct any investigation of the case.
A jury convicted Lamb on August 19, 1993 and he was sentenced to life in prison. At the time of sentencing, Lamb declared, “I will take whatever time you give me and I will go with it with pride, but (I want) to let you know you haven’t solved this case by locking me up.”
Jones went on trial in November 1993 and the state sought the death penalty. Once again Lorden was the crux of the prosecution’s case. 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. 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.
Matthews, who, like Lamb and Jones, contended he was innocent, accepted a plea deal in December 1993 after seeing the outcome of the cases against Lamb and Jones. Matthews pleaded no contest to second-degree murder, robbery and conspiracy and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He was released in 2000.
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 1993 trial 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.
Christine Mumma, executive director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, had been investigating Lamb’s case since 2007. On May 29, 2008, after Jones’ charges were dismissed, Mumma met with District Attorney G. Dewey Hudson, who was informed that Jones’ attorneys had obtained sworn statements from Jimmy Brinson and Larry Buckram that indicated Grady had been killed by Buckram and another man, Simon Loften. Hudson requested that the state re-investigate the case.
In 2007, Brinson had stated to investigators that while incarcerated with Buckram, they discussed Grady’s murder. Buckram was serving a life sentence for another murder. Brinson said Buckram claimed he killed Grady, but would never confess because it would put him on Death Row. Brinson said Buckram “felt especially bad about the idea of someone dying for a murder that he committed.” Brinson said that he “never understood why or how Lovely Lorden” said Lamb, Matthews and Jones were involved together because they were not known to hang out with each other.
Buckram also provided a statement in 2007 saying that he and his brother-in-law, Simon Loften, went to Grady’s home on the date of the murder to buy some liquor. Buckram said he stayed outside in a van while Loften went inside. Several minutes later, Loften emerged and drove off “like he was in a frenzy.” Loften stopped the van later, walked into the woods and returned. Buckram said that Loften had always carried a pistol, but never carried it after that night. Buckram said in his statement that Loften, who died in 1999, underwent a marked personality change after that night and became an alcoholic and cocaine addict.
In the summer of 2009, following the completion of the investigation, the prosecution and Mumma prepared to file a joint motion to vacate Lamb’s conviction and obtain a new trial, with an understanding that the state would dismiss the case because Lorden had recanted and no longer was reliable as a prosecution witness. A hearing was set for late August 2009. In a prosecution draft of the motion, the prosecution said that one reason it agreed to join in the motion for a new trial was that another prosecution witness in the case, Samuel Gales, was dead. When Mumma informed the prosecution that Gales was, in fact, alive, the prosecution withdrew its support for the motion.
In July 1992, law enforcement had gone to Gales’ home in search of the murder weapon. They did not recover the weapon, but instead found cocaine. Shortly thereafter, Gales implicated Lamb in the murder. He told authorities that on the night Grady was killed, Lamb came to his house to buy marijuana. Gales testified at Lamb’s trial that Lamb said “he thought Leamon Grady carried more money on him than that,” and stated, “We done…” and then abruptly said nothing further.
After the prosecution withdrew from the agreement to vacate Lamb’s conviction, Gales gave a statement to Lamb’s defense team that he could have been mistaken about the timing of Lamb’s visit to buy marijuana—that Lamb could have come to his house in January 1986—not 1987 when Grady was murdered.
In 2010, Mumma filed a petition for a new trial on Lamb’s behalf, based on Lovely Lorden’s recantation and the statements of Larry Buckram and Jimmy Brinson implicating Simon Loften in the murder.
A hearing on the petition was held in May 2013 where multiple witnesses, including Lovely Lorden, testified before the Court. On August 8, 2013, Superior Court Judge W. Douglas Parsons vacated Lamb’s conviction.
Judge Parsons found that “the entirety of the evidence against” Mr. Lamb at trial was the testimony of Lovely Lorden. He said he had reached “the definitive conclusion” that her testimony at Mr. Lamb’s 1993 trial “was false and that there was more than a reasonable possibility that, had the false testimony not been admitted, a different result would have been reached.”
Judge Parsons found that the evidence showed Lorden had “both personal and financial motives to fabricate evidence” against the defendants. He further stated that “fundamental fairness and due process dictate that Lorden's testimony and credibility cannot sustain Lamb's convictions.”
On August 13, 2013, the prosecution dismissed the charges and Lamb was released.
– Maurice Possley