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Horace Shelton

Other North Carolina Cases with Mistaken Witness ID
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In the spring of 2010, Buncombe County, North Carolina sheriff’s deputies arrested 51-year-old Horace Shelton for forging three checks totaling $838.19.

Two of the checks, each for $287.65, were cashed at two Ingle’s grocery stores in Asheville, North Carolina, in December 2009. The third check, for $262.89, was cashed at Jerry’s Garage, an auto repair shop in Leicester, North Carolina, on March 31, 2010 for installation of a new alternator. All three checks appeared to be payroll checks from Brookdale Asheville Manor, a senior assisted living facility in Asheville, and were made out to Shelton.

The employees of the grocery stores had no memory of the checks being cashed, but one store had a security-camera video showing a man and a woman together when the man cashed the check. The video showed a clerk asking for a driver’s license and writing the license number on the check. The check cashed at the other Ingle’s store showed the same driver’s license number, which was registered to Shelton.

Police questioned 72-year-old Jerry Owens, owner of Jerry’s Garage, about the car repair that was paid for with the forged check for $262.89. Owens remembered only that it was presented by a man and a woman. He described the man only as a “black male.”

The officer displayed a single photograph of Shelton on his squad car computer screen. Owens identified him as the man who presented the check. Although Shelton’s left eye is blind and quite distinctive, Owens did not mention at that time that the man who came to his shop had any unusual facial features.

Shelton went to trial in April 2012 in Buncombe County Superior Court. He steadfastly maintained his innocence and rejected an offer to plead guilty in return for a sentence of 120 days, despite facing an enhanced sentence as a habitual offender if convicted.

The only eyewitness evidence against Sheldon was the testimony of Owens, who admitted that he had memory problems and that a year earlier he didn’t know if Shelton was the man who gave him the check. Nonetheless, Owens testified that he did in fact recognize Shelton and now remembered that the man who gave him the check had a bad eye, like Shelton.

The prosecution played the security video from the grocery store showing the man who presented the two checks there. Shelton had never before seen the video and when he saw it at trial, he recognized the man as Ralph Washington, whom he had met back in 2009. Both men were homeless at the time and worked together for a few days before Washington was fired. Shelton then discovered that Washington had taken his driver’s license. At the time, the loss had been of little concern to Shelton because he only drove a scooter, which did not require a driver’s license.

Shelton’s lawyer had done no investigation before trial and had not shown the video to Shelton, so Shelton’s recognition of Washington at trial came too late to help him. On April 17, 2012, the jury convicted Shelton of three counts of forgery. He was sentenced as a habitual offender to 10 years and 7 months to 13 years and 6 months in prison.

In May 2013, after his appeal was denied, Shelton, acting without a lawyer, filed a petition for actual innocence with the North Carolina Supreme Court. The petition was dismissed without a hearing.

Shelton then sought help from the North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services. Mary Pollard, executive director of NCPLS, and Lauren Miller, NCPLS staff attorney, hired Thomas Chickos, a private investigator, to re-examine the evidence against Shelton.

Chickos discovered that the receipt at Jerry’s Garage was signed by “Jennifer Madison” and was for a repair of a 1991 Toyota Camry. State vehicle records showed such a car was registered to Jennifer Madison and that on January 17, 2010, she had been ticketed for allowing an unlicensed driver to drive her car. Chickos tracked down the driver’s ticket and learned that it had been issued to Washington.

Chickos went to an address used by Madison. The owner of the property said he had allowed Madison and Washington, who was her boyfriend, to live there for a short time because they were homeless. Chickos then got mug shot photographs of Madison and Washington, and found that they matched the couple in the video from the Ingle’s grocery store.

Chickos also showed the photographs and the video to the deputy who had made the traffic stop of Madison and Washington. The deputy also concluded that Madison and Washington were the couple in the grocery store video.

In April 2014, NCPLS attorney Miller filed a motion for appropriate relief seeking to vacate Shelton’s convictions. The motion said that Washington “stole Mr. Shelton’s license and then used it to mask his identity and to utter three false checks. Washington defrauded Ingle’s and Jerry’s Garage and left Mr. Shelton to be wrongly convicted.”

The motion also alleged that Shelton’s trial lawyer had provided an ineffective legal defense by failing to challenge Owens’s eyewitness identification and by failing to conduct any investigation before trial.

On June 12, 2014, the convictions were vacated, the prosecution dismissed the charges, and Shelton was released. In December 2016, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory granted Shelton a pardon based on innocence, clearing the way for Shelton to seek state compensation.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 11/28/2016
Last Updated: 1/15/2017
State:North Carolina
County:Buncombe
Most Serious Crime:Forgery
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2010
Convicted:2012
Exonerated:2014
Sentence:10 7/12 to 13 1/2 years
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:51
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No