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Willie Womble

Other North Carolina Exonerations
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On November 18, 1975, two men robbed a convenience store in Butner, North Carolina and escaped with $380 in cash after fatally shooting the store manager, 48-year-old Roy Bullock, in front of his 13-year-old daughter.

Police from the State Bureau of Investigation met with Durham police and developed several suspects, including Joseph Perry and Albert Willis, who were suspected of committing armed robberies in Durham. Twenty-one-year-old Willie Womble, a mentally-handicapped man known to hang around Perry and Willis, was also suspected.

On November 24, 1975, Perry was arrested in Durham on a charge of attempted robbery of a Hardee’s restaurant.
 
On December 7, 1975, Durham police detective Lorenzo Leathers began questioning Womble about an unrelated crime. Soon after, Leathers reported that Womble had implicated himself, Perry, Willis, and a fourth man, James Frazier, in the crime. Detective Leathers said Womble admitted that he was paid $20 to act as a lookout while Perry, Willis and Frazier robbed the store.

The dead victim’s daughter said she only saw two men in the store. She was unable to identify any of the four suspects.

All four were charged with first degree murder and armed robbery. Womble went to trial in Granville County Circuit Court on July 6, 1976. No physical or forensic evidence linked him to the crime. The prosecution’s case primarily was based on Womble’s confession.

Womble had recanted his confession almost immediately after he gave it. He testified in his own defense and said that he couldn’t read, was a special education student in school and that Leathers had intimidated him into signing a statement that Leathers had written out.
 
Womble said Leathers showed him a statement that Leathers had prepared and demanded that he sign it. He testified that Leathers said, “Sign this. I am trying to hang Joe Perry.”
 
Womble told the jury that Leathers read the statement to him and he replied that he didn’t know anything about the robbery and murder. When he balked at signing it, Womble said Leathers said that if he didn’t sign it, “he said he (was) going to try to hang me, too.”

Two alibi witnesses testified that Womble was with them watching television at the time of the crime.

On July 7, 1976, after a two-day trial, the jury deliberated for 15 minutes before convicting Womble of first-degree murder. The armed robbery charge was dismissed by the prosecution prior to trial. He was sentenced to 80 years in prison.

Ultimately, the charges against Frazier and Willis were dismissed. Perry was convicted of first-degree murder and armed robbery and he was sentenced to life in prison.

Thirty-seven years later, on April 13, 2013, Perry wrote a letter to the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, a state body established to investigate claims of wrongful conviction. Perry said he committed the robbery and murder with Willis. Willis had died, and Perry now felt free to set the record straight—Womble was innocent.

The commission staff interviewed Womble, who asserted his innocence. The commission staff interviewed Perry who said he and Willis robbed the store in Butner and that he shot Bullock. Perry told the Commission that Womble was not involved in the crime. Perry also expressed remorse for shooting Bullock in front of his daughter.

On October 17, 2014, a three-judge panel in Granville County, after reviewing the evidence presented by the commission, vacated Womble’s sentence. Granville County District Attorney Sam Currin rose from his seat in the courtroom and apologized to Womble.

Later in the day, after Womble was released from prison, Currin said, “I apologized to Mr. Womble and to the family of Mr. Ray Bullock, who was the victim. I just felt it was right. The system and the state of North Carolina failed them for 39 years.”

Womble was subsequently awarded $750,000 in state compensation. In October 2017, he filed a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking compensation.

In February 2018, Womble was charged with murdering a neighbor, Donna Todd, in Pittsboro, North Carolina

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 10/17/2014
Last Updated: 3/3/2018
State:North Carolina
County:Granville
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1975
Convicted:1976
Exonerated:2014
Sentence:80 years
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:21
Contributing Factors:False Confession, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No