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Damian Mills

North Carolina Exonerations with Codefendant Confessions
Shortly before midnight on Monday, September 18, 2000, 51-year-old Walter Bowman was shot and killed at his home in Fairview, North Carolina, a few miles southeast of Asheville.

Bowman had gone to bed around 10:00 p.m., while his son, Shaun Bowman, Shaun’s girlfriend, Wanda Holloway, and a family friend, Tony Gibson, stayed up to watch football in the living room. At around 11:35 p.m., several men entered the home. The men were African-American, wore gloves, and had bandanas over their faces. They were armed with a shotgun and pistols. One of the intruders pointed a gun at Shaun Bowman’s head, and another man dragged Wanda Holloway into the living room after she tried to run to the kitchen.

Walter Bowman opened the door from the bedroom, then shut it when he saw the robbers. The intruder with a shotgun fired a shot at the bedroom door. The shooter then kicked the door open and shouted, “I shot him, I shot him!” The men left the house without taking anything and drove away. Walter Bowman died from a shotgun wound to his abdomen on the way to the hospital.

Holloway and Gibson gave descriptions of the intruders to investigators but did not make any identifications. Police believed that Shaun Bowman was a drug dealer and that he was the target of a robbery that turned into a murder. Drug paraphernalia, pills and marijuana were found at the Bowman residence.

The day after the murder, a postal worker found several bandanas and gloves along the roadside, not far from Bowman’s house.

On September 20, the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office received a Crime Stoppers tip that the assailants were Robert Rutherford, Bradford Summey, and Lacy “J.J.” Pickens. But when processing the tip, the Sheriff’s Office noted that their records showed J.J. Pickens was in custody at the time of the crime, so no further investigation was done. In fact, while Pickens was listed as an inmate at the Buncombe County Jail, he was only confined on weekends and was free on work release during the week.

Gibson went to the sheriff’s office on September 20 and 21, where he gave more information on what had happened on the night of the murder. While at the office, he saw a mugshot of 20-year-old Kenneth Kagonyera on a bulletin board in the Criminal Investigative Division. Gibson did not make an ID, but said that one of the assailants appeared to have the same build and skin color as Kagonyera, who was wanted for other unrelated crimes.

On September 23, sheriff’s deputies received a Crime Stoppers tip stating that Kagonyera, Larry Williams, Jr., and Aaron Brewton were involved with Bowman’s death. There would be three other Crime Stoppers tips phoned in. It’s unclear if they were made by several people or one person, but the birthdates used as an ID to log the calls were nearly identical.  

Separately on that same day, sheriff’s deputies picked up a woman named Lucinda Fair during a raid. She said that she had overheard Brewton telling another person that he had been the one to shoot through the door, and that Williams and Kagonyera were also involved.  

Brewton and Kagonyera were both brought in for questioning that day and denied any involvement. Williams, who was 16 with a history of psychiatric problems, was questioned on September 24 and 25, and denied any involvement.  

Also on September 25, deputies brought in 21-year-old Robert Wilcoxson for questioning. Williams, Kagonyera, and Wilcoxson all knew each other, and Wilcoxson first came to the attention of law-enforcement as a suspect in Bowman’s death when a van he owned was impounded after it was involved in a chase with law enforcement. A note with the impound order said the vehicle was possibly involved in a homicide. Separately, a jailer said he overheard Brewton telling another inmate on September 24 that Wilcoxson and Kagonyera were involved in the shooting. During his questioning, Wilcoxson said he knew nothing about the homicide.

Teddy Isbell contacted the sheriff’s office on September 25 through an intermediary and told them that he had information about the case. Specifically, he told investigators, prior to the shooting, he had retrieved a shotgun and given it to Kagonyera. Isbell, who was 35, said Kagonyera told him that he was worried about repercussions from a burglary he had committed. Isbell’s concern was that his fingerprints might be on a weapon used in a murder. The intermediary was a man who ran a drug-treatment center, and he would later receive several hundred dollars in reward money for help in closing the Bowman murder case. Isbell was a drug addict, who would later say that he had been high on cocaine for three weeks straight during most of this period.  

Isbell at first told deputies that he heard Kagonyera bragging about the robbery during a dice game. Isbell said that Kagonyera had stated that Wilcoxson shot Bowman when things got “messed up” during the robbery. But Isbell’s story changed during later interviews with police; he first admitted helping to plan the robbery, then said he was present during the shooting, and later claimed he had gotten out of the car before the group arrived at Bowman’s home.

During Williams’s third interview, on September 26, he confessed and said that he, Kagonyera, Wilcoxson, and Brewton were involved in the home invasion that led to Bowman’s death. Two days later, he said that neither he nor Wilcoxson was involved, but that Kagonyera had come to him the day after the murder trying to get rid of the shotgun. Although only 16, Williams was without a parent for all but one of his interrogations, and sheriff’s deputies told him that there was evidence implicating him in the crime and that he would go to prison for life without parole.  

Isbell’s story also changed. On September 28, he told investigators that he had helped come up with the plan to rob Shaun Bowman, but that it was Kagonyera, Little, and Wilcoxson who carried it out. He said he was smoking crack with Shaun Bowman’s brother at an apartment complex in Asheville at the time of the shooting.

None of the statements made by any of the men under investigation was recorded. Most were written out by sheriff’s deputies.  

On October 11, 2000, sheriff’s deputies got a new lead.  An agent with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms told them that 20-year-old Damian Mills had recently purchased a shotgun similar to the type used in the shooting. Mills was brought in for questioning that day. He told investigators that Kagonyera was his cousin, and that he knew the other men under suspicion, but not very well. He said he didn’t know the Bowmans and had nothing to do with the murder. That same day, Williams, in a brief interview with investigators, said that he had heard from another inmate at the jail that Mills was involved. The details, Williams said, were the same as the details given to him by Sheriff Bobby Lee Medford.

Shaun Bowman had disappeared from his father’s house when deputies showed up on the night of the shooting. He was finally interviewed on October 23. In a statement, he said that the men who entered the house and took part in the murder and attempted robbery were Kagonyera, Brewton, Wilcoxson, and Williams.

Later, it was discovered that the identifications were based in part on police misconduct and faulty ID procedures. First, the detectives had told Bowman that Kagonyera’s car had been seen at the gas station just after the shooting (it hadn’t). Second, they placed photos of the four men before Bowman and told him that these were the men involved in the shooting. Bowman hesitated. He knew most of these men by sight, if not by name, and he wasn’t sure they were involved. But under pressure from the detectives, he signed a statement, saying he “got a good look at the gunmen.”

On October 24, Williams again changed his version of events. During his seventh interview, this time with his father present, he confessed and said that he had been with Kagonyera, Wilcoxson, Brewton, Mills, and Isbell when they went to rob Bowman. They drove in two cars, a blue sedan and a van. He also said that Mills had come up with the idea to rob Bowman. Later that day, all six men were charged with first-degree murder. Williams would give one more interview, where he would change his story again, this time removing himself and Wilcoxson from the events.

During the investigation, sheriff’s deputies made extensive use of jailhouse informants. Six inmates gave statements to law-enforcement. While the statements were inconsistent, all six men were named in at least one of the statements.

After the arrests, Mills was interviewed twice more, on October 25 and 26. First, he said he wasn’t involved, but that Kagonyera and Wilcoxson had been planning a robbery. The next day, he gave a confession that also implicated Kagonyera, Wilcoxson, Williams, and Brewton in the shooting and attempted robbery.

The bandanas and the gloves found on the side of the road had been analyzed and then sent off for DNA and serological testing. All six men had provided DNA samples for comparison. The DNA results came back on March 7, 2001, excluding Bowman and all of the defendants as the source of the genetic material. Those results were never given to the defendants or their attorneys. There was no physical or forensic evidence tying any of the defendants to the crime. The cases were tied together by the four confessions that implicated the defendants and each other, and the identification provided by Shaun Bowman.  (Wilcoxson and Brewton never made a confession, nor did they implicate any others.)

On June 26, 2001, Mills pled guilty to second-degree murder, attempted armed robbery, and conspiracy to commit armed robbery. He was later sentenced to 12 years in prison.  

On August 6, 2001, Kagonyera filed a pro se motion to dismiss, and he requested the results of the DNA tests. They were not provided to him.  

Without those results, Kagonyera folded. On November 30, 2001, Kagonyera confessed during an interview with District Attorney Ron Moore. He said that he and the other five men had gone to the house in Fairview to rob Shaun Bowman, but it was Wilcoxson who had fired the shot that killed Walter Bowman.  He pled guilty to second-degree murder on December 13, 2001 and was sentenced to between 12 and 15 years in prison.

Williams pled guilty to second-degree murder on February 25, 2002 and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Robert Wilcoxson pled guilty to second-degree murder on August 15, 2002 and was sentenced to between 12½ and 15¾ years in prison. Charges against Brewton were dismissed on August 26, 2002.  Teddy Isbell pled guilty to accessory after the fact to murder on December 11, 2003 and was sentenced to 3 years.

Prior to his sentencing, Kagonyera tried unsuccessfully to withdraw his plea. He claimed his decision had been uninformed because the murder charge had been consolidated with other pending unrelated charges. He later appealed his conviction, which was denied.

Attorneys for Kagonyera and Wilcoxson would later testify at post-conviction hearings that their clients entered plea agreements to avoid the possible death sentences they could have faced if convicted at trial of first-degree murder.  

In 2003, Robert Rutherford confessed to a federal agent that he, Bradford Summey, and Lacy Pickens had committed the crime. Although Rutherford had the month and time wrong in his statement, almost all of the other details tracked closely with what investigators had found at the crime scene. The agent sent a memo to the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office, which forwarded it to the district attorney. By then, Isbell was the only one of the six men whose case was still unresolved. While Isbell’s attorney knew about Rutherford’s statement, there is no indication that the DA or the sheriff’s office made any effort to evaluate its credibility. Mills would also request a copy of Rutherford’s statement, but there is no indication that the DA’s office responded.  

In 2007, the DNA samples from the bandana were run through the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Combined DNA Index System, known as CODIS. The results said that the source of the DNA was Bradford Summey.

On August 26, 2008, Kagonyera submitted a claim of factual innocence to the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, a state agency whose mission is to evaluate claims of innocence. Wilcoxson submitted a similar claim on November 22, 2010. The Commission held a hearing on both claims in April 2011, and unanimously found sufficient evidence to order review of the case by a judicial panel.

Along with Rutherford’s confession and the DNA match, the commission also reviewed a segment of a security video from a convenience store near the Bowman home. A witness who was at the convenience store the night of the murder said that he saw three men fitting the description of the robbers drive up to the store in a white or cream-colored Buick or Oldsmobile, around 11:30 p.m. He said that the men stayed only long enough to get gas, and that they appeared to be acting suspiciously.

Investigators for the commission noticed that a segment in the middle of the store security tape switched inexplicably from images of the store to a recording of a soap opera. Jamie Lau, an investigator with the commission, testified that a three-minute section was taped over with an episode of “The Guiding Light” the day before warrants were issued for the six men who were charged with Bowman’s murder. Lau said sheriff’s investigators obtained the surveillance tape from the convenience store the day after Bowman was killed. By reviewing soap opera transcripts, commission investigators learned that the episode aired on Oct. 23, 2000, the same day a detective turned the tape over to an evidence room manager. Investigators for the commission concluded that the missing portion might have shown a clear view of the faces of the men who killed Bowman, but they could not determine how the erasure occurred. Lau also testified that the remainder of the tape provided potential evidence of the true killers’ identities. The tape shows images of an unusual car—a 1971 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme—the same make and model owned at the time by Pickens.

In addition, during an interview with Lau, Shaun Bowman recanted part of his identification of the assailants. He had originally said in a statement to investigators that he was certain of all four identifications, but now he had doubts about Kagonyera. He couldn’t exclude him. He just wasn’t sure.

Part of the commission’s inquiry was to examine the confessions made by four of the defendants. Steve Drizin, an attorney and expert on false confessions at Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions, submitted a report that said the confessions were highly unreliable. He noted that none of the statements led investigators to new evidence of guilt. The confessions lacked details of the crime and often contradicted each other. By comparison, Drizin noted, Rutherford’s statement and the DNA connection with Summey were more consistent and supported by the physical and forensic evidence.

On September 23, 2011, a panel of three judges from North Carolina’s superior court system ruled that Kagonyera and Wilcoxson were innocent. Both men were released from prison within hours.

In September 2013, Wilcoxson filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Buncombe County. The lawsuit was settled in 2015 for $5,125,000. He also received $545,591 in state compensation in April 2012.

In September 2014, Kagonyera also filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the county. The county settled Kagonyera's lawsuit in April 2015 for $515,000.

Mills, Williams and Isbell didn’t apply for relief from the Innocence Commission, in part because they had been released from prison. Despite the decisions by the commission, Moore continued to maintain that Mills, Williams, and Isbell were guilty.  In the spring of 2014, Todd Williams, a defense attorney from Asheville, defeated Moore in the Democratic primary and became the new district attorney in early 2015.

Todd Williams ordered that his staff conduct a full review of the Bowman murder case. On September 30, 2015, Williams and defense attorneys for Mills, Williams, and Isbell appeared in the courtroom of Judge Joseph Crosswhite. The prosecution and defense agreed that the DNA evidence indicated the defendants were not involved in the crime. The judge listened to brief statements from the lawyers, retired to chambers for 10 minutes, and returned to declare Mills, Williams, and Isbell factually innocent. The convictions were vacated and the charges were dismissed.

Earlier in the year, Buncombe County agreed to settle a lawsuit brought by Isbell, Williams, and Mills. Williams received $750,000, Mills received $512,250, and Isbell received $240,000.

Separately, Medford was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison in 2008 for taking up to $300,000 in bribes from illegal video-gambling operators during his 12 years as sheriff, which ended in 2006.

During a video deposition taken by attorneys in the civil cases against Buncombe County, Medford was unapologetic about applying pressure to defendants to get them to plead guilty.  “If this guy, he didn't do it and he said ‘If you’re going to plea, we're going to give you two years, but if you don’t plea, we’re going to give you 20 years,’ hell, they're going to jump at the two years, and not going to take a chance on a jury trial,” Medford explained.  

The attorney then asked, “People can be under a lot of pressure to avoid a long sentence or even a death penalty?”  

Medford’s response: “Sure.”  

On December 17, 2020, Kagonyera, Isbell, Mills and Williams received pardons of innocence from Gov. Roy Cooper.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 10/11/2015
Last Updated: 11/12/2019
State:North Carolina
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Attempt, Violent, Conspiracy
Reported Crime Date:2000
Sentence:12 years
Age at the date of reported crime:20
Contributing Factors:False Confession, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes