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William Lee

Other Georgia Exoneration Cases with Child Victims
On April 26, 1986, 48-year-old Clifford Jones Sr., his 47-year-old wife, Nina, and their 14-year-old son, Jerold, were found beaten and shot to death inside their home in Jesup, Georgia. Police believed robbery was the motive because the couple owned the Reedy Creek Restaurant, and a bank bag containing about $1,500 in cash from the previous night’s receipts was missing.

About two months later, on June 17, 44-year-old Charles Moore returned home from work in western Glynn County, about a half-hour drive from Jesup, and found a towel hanging from his front door. Suspecting someone had broken in, he went next door and came back with a neighbor, who was carrying a handgun. When they went inside Moore’s home, a man named Bruce Lee stood up and shot Moore in the back, killing him. The neighbor then fatally shot Lee.

At about the same time, Bruce Lee’s wife, Sherry, arrived in a car. Bruce’s 25-year-old brother William Lee, who ran from the house into nearby woods after Moore and Bruce Lee were shot, got into the car and fled. Once police determined that Bruce Lee had a brother named William and that Bruce was married to Sherry Days, they began hunting for them. Days later, police arrested Sherry and William Lee in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Lee was charged with three counts of capital murder for the shooting deaths of Clifford, Nina and Jerold Jones, as well as armed robbery, burglary and use of a weapon in the commission of a felony. He also was charge with felony murder in the death of Moore.

Lee went to trial in Wayne County Superior Court on the Jones family murders in November 1987. The prosecution’s case was primarily based on the testimony of Sherry Lee and David Morris, a jailhouse informant.

Sherry Lee testified that she went with William and Bruce to rob the Jones family and that she was in the car with them after the shooting. She said that Bruce and William Lee went into the home carrying handguns. She said that when Clifford resisted, Bruce shot him six times. She testified that William Lee forced Nina and Jerold into a bedroom where he stabbed and shot Jerold and shot Nina three times.

She said she came into the house while Bruce and William were moving Clifford’s body and that Bruce ordered her to leave. She said went back outside and waited in the car and when Bruce and William came out, they all drove away. She testified that she had married Bruce Lee within hours after the crime.

Morris, a convicted burglar, testified that he was in the county jail with William Lee prior to the trial and that Lee confessed to the murders. Morris said Lee threatened to kill him if he told anyone about his admission; Morris also identified a note that he said he wrote to himself that quoted Lee’s death threat.

On November 24, 1987, the jury convicted Lee of three counts of capital murder, armed robbery, burglary and use of a weapon in commission of a felony. He was sentenced to death. In 1988, Lee pled guilty to felony murder in Moore’s death and was sentenced to life in prison.

In 1988, the Georgia Supreme Court upheld Lee’s conviction and sentence for the Jones murders. Lee filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus in 1989, setting off a legal battle that would last 26 years.

The petition was denied in 1994 but on appeal the denial was set aside and the case was remanded for additional hearings in 1995. The petition was denied again in 1999. Subsequently, the Georgia Supreme Court granted a motion filed by Lee’s lawyers to examine the files of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation in his case.

The files revealed a trove of exculpatory evidence that had been concealed from Lee’s defense lawyer.

A hearing was held on a petition for a new trial in 2006, and in 2008, Superior Court Judge Gary McCorvey issued a 188-page ruling granting Lee a new trial. The ruling excoriated the prosecutors—John Johnson and Glenn Thomas Jr.—for withholding evidence that suggested that the crime was committed by two other men, for knowingly allowing Morris to lie on the witness stand, and for failing to disclose to that Sherry Lee had given three separate statements prior to the trial that she had no knowledge of the crime and that neither she nor the Lee brothers were involved.

By that time, Sherry Lee—who had been granted immunity from prosecution and was never charged in the Jones murders or the murder of Charles Moore—had recanted her trial testimony, saying she lied because she didn’t want to get charged in the Jones murder case. She also had since died in a car crash.

Less than three weeks prior to Lee’s trial, the prosecution disclosed that Morris, the jailhouse informant, had received a note from Lee threatening to kill him if he revealed that Lee had admitted the murders. The note said, “David, you are going to get killed if you tell them what I told you and if you show them this, I will get you and your family. You little rat, you are going to be a dead rat.”

Lee’s defense lawyer had filed a motion seeking funds to hire a handwriting analyst to compare Lee’s handwriting to the note. Before that motion was acted upon, the lead detective on the case then confronted Morris, who admitted he had forged the note himself.

Rather than admit to the defense that Morris had lied about the note and head off the defense analysis of the note, the prosecution denied that Morris ever claimed Lee wrote the note. Instead, the prosecution claimed the authorship of the note was not an issue. And at trial Morris testified that Lee delivered the threat orally and that he wrote it down verbatim. He testified that after he wrote it down, he put the note in a book and slid it across the jail to Lee’s cell. Lee opened the book, read the note and slid the book back, Morris testified.

“This preposterous chain of events enabled the State to avoid retracting their notice saying that Morris had ‘received’ the threatening note from Mr. Lee,” Judge McCorvey wrote.

When Lee’s defense attorney attempted to cross-examine Morris about the authorship of the note, the prosecution said, “David Morris never said (William) Lee wrote that note.”

The prosecution also failed to disclose that Morris had testified against other jail inmates, and that he received favorable parole recommendations from the prosecution and that a pending assault conviction was dismissed in return for his testimony against Lee.

The prosecution further presented false evidence when it suggested that three guns linked to Lee and his dead brother came from the Jones home, even though the prosecution had an inventory prepared by Jones before his death that showed that no guns were missing from the home.

A witness who originally told police that she was plowing a field when she saw a white car speed past changed her testimony to say that she was mowing the yard when she saw a blue car (fitting the description of the Lee brothers’ car), but the prosecution failed to disclose the witness’s initial statement, the judge ruled.

The prosecution also failed to disclose to the defense the statement of another witness who said he saw a car and a truck—fitting the description of vehicles owned by two other men—speed away from the scene of the murders.

The judge also criticized the prosecution for coaching the testimony of Christy Jones, Clifford and Nina’s daughter, who had left the family home on a school trip early in the morning and just hours before the crime.

Christy was suffering from serious mental issues as a result of the trauma and was under the care of psychologist, who wrote a letter to the judge saying that requiring her to testify could cause serious psychological damage. The judge gave the letter to the prosecution without informing the defense and the prosecution then wrote a letter to Christy’s psychologist saying that the prosecution “needed” her to testify that her mother gave her $40 for her school trip and took the money from a bank bag containing the restaurant receipts to establish that the bank bag was in the home prior to the crime. The prosecution failed to disclose that Christy’s initial statement said that her mother got the money from her wallet—not the bank bag, according to the ruling.

Judge McCorvey also ruled that the prosecution failed to disclose that a detective who investigated the burglary and murder of Charles Moore (where Bruce Lee was shot by Moore’s neighbor) believed that the Lee brothers had no involvement in the Jones murders. David Dowdy, then a Glynn County detective who had investigated more than 50 murders, transported William Lee back to Wayne County from Flagstaff where Lee was arrested. Dowdy believed that the Jones family had been murdered by Robert and Joe Yarbrough, who were arrested for murdering a store clerk carrying a bank bag of cash in the spring of 1987 in Wayne County in circumstances similar to the murder of the Jones family. He attempted to persuade the prosecution to investigate the Yarbrough brothers, but was ignored.

The judge also said that although Lee’s defense attorney got court approval to hire an investigator for $15 an hour, the investigator failed to interview any police officers and learned little more than the occupations of any other witnesses. Moreover, Lee’s attorney failed to investigate any of the forensic or physical evidence—none of which linked Sherry, William or Bruce Lee to the crime—including 47 latent finger and palm prints and numerous hairs recovered at the scene.

The defense attorney, who had handled one death penalty case previously, presented only one witness at the punishment phase of the crime—Lee’s sister—who was asked seven questions (three of which consisted of giving her name and relationship to Lee). The entire mitigation presented on Lee’s behalf took up 22 lines of transcript.

“This case presents a weak prosecution case dependent for its success on the believability of two witnesses unfavored in the law and by the public—a jailhouse snitch and a co-conspirator—with absolutely no forensic evidence to link (Williams) to the crime scene,” Judge McCorvey wrote.

“Not only was the state’s evidence in this case ‘thin,’” the judge added, “but what is more devastating is that (defense) counsel’s preparation for and performance in the penalty phase is even ‘thinner.’”

The prosecution subsequently sought to introduce Sherry’s Lee’s testimony at the retrial of William Lee, but the motion was denied.

In 2010, the lead prosecutor in Lee’s trial, Glenn Thomas Jr., who had gone on to be a defense attorney and then a municipal court judge, was beaten to death in his law office by a former client, Bobby Rex Stribling. Stribling later said he was angry because Thomas had accepted a $500 fee to obtain Stribling’s early release from prison but failed to do so. After being released, Stribling went to Thomas’s office and demanded a refund. Stribling said he snapped and attacked the 74-year-old Thomas after Thomas said he wouldn’t give money to a “white trash convict.” Stribling was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

Following Judge McCorvey’s 2008 ruling, lawyers for Lee filed motions seeking to bar a retrial because of the misconduct by the prosecutors at Lee’s first trial. In June 2015, while the motions were still pending, the prosecution dismissed the charges. Lee remained incarcerated on the conviction arising from the murder of Charles Moore.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 1/18/2016
State:Georgia
County:Wayne
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery, Burglary/Unlawful Entry, Illegal Use of a Weapon
Reported Crime Date:1986
Convicted:1987
Exonerated:2015
Sentence:Death
Race:Caucasian
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:25
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No