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Sylvester Smith

Other North Carolina Exonerations
On March 2, 1984, two girls, four-year old G.O. and her cousin, five-year-old J.S., were sexually assaulted by a nine-year-old male cousin in Belville, North Carolina.

However, when they told their grandmother what had happened, she ordered them to falsely accuse 32-year-Sylvester Smith, who was the boyfriend of G.O.’s mother.

Three days later, after a physician conducted a physical examination and concluded that the girls had been sexually assaulted, Smith was arrested and charged with first-degree rape, first-degree sexual offense, and indecent liberties with a minor.

He went to trial in Brunswick County Superior Court in August 1984.

G.O. testified that Smith came into the bedroom where she and J.S. were sleeping, slipped off her pants, and touched her in her “project” with his “worm.” G.O. denied that he had touched her anywhere else.

J.S. testified that Smith threatened to beat her “half to death,” pushed her down on the bed, and stuck his “thing in my project.” J.S. also testified that Smith stuck “his hand in my butt."

Asked by Brunswick County prosecutor Mike Easley to show the jury where their “project” was, both pointed to their vaginal areas. Both indicated the same area when asked to show where the “worm” was, and J.S. pointed to her anal area when asked to show where her “butt” was.

Minerva Glidden and Elena Peterson, Rape Task Force volunteers in Wilmington, North Carolina, testified for the prosecution as well. Glidden, a registered nurse, testified that she was called to the New Hanover Memorial Hospital emergency room at around 1:45 p.m. on March 5, 1984, where she met with G.O. Glidden told the jury that G.O. told her that Smith put his finger in G.O.’s “project,” and also put his finger in her “butt,” indicating her vaginal and anal areas. Glidden also testified that G.O. told her that Smith climbed on top of her and put his “peeter-weeter” in her “project.”

Peterson, who was coordinator of the task force, testified that she met J.S. March 7, 1984. Peterson testified, “The story was that Sylvester put his ‘thing’ in her ‘project.’ And he stuck his finger in her—in her ‘butt.’ And that if she told anybody, that he would beat her half to death.”

The girls’ grandmother testified that she went to the mobile home where Sylvester was living with G.O’s mother, G.O., and J.S. The grandmother said that G.O. led her into the bedroom to tell her what “Sylvester had done to me.”

“She said he pressed his ‘peeter’ in her ‘project’ and in her ‘butt,’ his finger,” she testified. She added that G.O. told her that Sylvester then told her to go into the bathroom and wash the blood off.

The grandmother testified that she told G.O’s mother what happened and told her to take the girl to the hospital.

The girl’s mother testified that she and G.O. hitchhiked to the hospital in the rain. Meanwhile, the grandmother and her husband met J.S. at the mobile home when J.S. came home from school. J.S.’s mother then took J.S. to New Hanover Memorial Hospital.

Dr. Alfred Woodworth testified that he examined both girls. His examination of G.O. revealed “a well-circumscribed area of bruising around the vaginal opening.” He concluded that a penis caused the trauma. He also testified that he discovered evidence of a sexually transmitted disease. Dr. Woodworth testified that his examination of J.S. revealed “marked redness and irritation, with areas of contusions ... around the vaginal opening,” which could have been caused by a finger or penis. He found no sperm in either examination.

Smith testified and denied any knowledge of the incidents.

On August 17, 1984, Smith was convicted of first-degree rape of G.O. and two counts of first-degree sexual offense against both girls. He was sentenced to three terms of life in prison—two to be served concurrently and one to be served consecutively.

In December 1985, the North Carolina Court of Appeals upheld Smith’s convictions for first-degree rape of G.O. and one count of first-degree sexual offense against J.S. The conviction for first-degree sexual offense against G.O. was set aside and later dismissed.

In 2004—two decades later—after the grandmother died, G.O. recanted her testimony and admitted that Smith had not raped her or J.S. G.O. said she and J.S. were forced to falsely accuse Smith to protect their cousin.

By that time, the cousin had been convicted of murder and was serving a life sentence in prison.

In November 2004, during a hearing on a motion to vacate Smith’s convictions, G.O. testified that she considered Smith to be her father. He was living with her mother and was the father of her younger brother.

Brunswick County District Attorney Rex Gore asked G.O., “Did he, in fact, when you were four years old, rape you?”

“No, he didn’t,” G.O. said.

She also denied that he molested her in any way.

G.O. said that she had not come forward sooner because she was confused and needed time to work things out internally. “I wish I could have done it sooner,” she said.

J.S. also testified and admitted that she had falsely accused Smith at the behest of her grandmother.

On November 5, at the conclusion of the hearing, the prosecution asked that Smith’s convictions be vacated. The motion was granted and the prosecution dismissed the charges. Smith was immediately released.

In 2005, Smith sought a pardon so that he could apply for up to $400,000 in state compensation. However, then Gov. Mike Easley—who had been the lead prosecutor at Smith’s trial in 1984—denied the request.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date:  Before June 2012
Last Updated: 11/6/2017
State:North Carolina
Most Serious Crime:Child Sex Abuse
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1984
Age at the date of reported crime:32
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No