In the early evening of September 27, 1932, Lonnie G. Russell, a 44-year-old filling station attendant in Asheville, North Carolina, was shot during an armed robbery. As the robbers fled with about $300, Russell ran from the station and hailed a passing car. He was taken to a hospital where he died a little later.
Gus Colin Langley, 31, and Wilcey “Shorty” Johnson were arrested in Wilmington because they were driving a car with New Jersey license plates and two witnesses reported seeing a car with such plates in the vicinity. A third witness, a hotel steward, stated that the fleeing robbers departed the scene in that vehicle. A female witness provided a sketchy description of the two robbers: one man was noticeably taller than the other, and the tall man was fair-haired.
Officers focused on finding the car with New Jersey plates, and located one such vehicle in the possession of Langley, a house painter. Langley was not from Asheville; he lived in Wilmington, almost 400 miles away. He had been living in New Jersey, but had returned to his native town to work with his father. He had a detailed alibi for the day before and the day of the crime. However, his vehicle was reportedly the only New Jersey car that the police located. Further, Langley had a criminal record and was almost certainly known to Asheville police; according to the 1930 U.S. Census, he was at that time a prisoner in Asheville. In any event, Langley and his friend Shorty Johnson were arrested in Wilmington and brought to the Asheville jail. Sheriff Lawrence Brown brought the witnesses who saw the robbers to view and identify Langley and Johnson in their jail cells.
Langley’s movements could have been easily verified, but the Asheville police were disinclined to investigate further and exculpatory evidence was ignored. For example, Langley’s car was conspicuously tagged with advertising for his painting business, a detail that would have been hard for witnesses to miss. By his account, he had been far from Asheville at the time of the murder, in the area between Wilmington and Fort Bragg. He encountered an assortment of persons who could have attested to his presence there. On the day before the murder, he and Johnson gave a group of army officers a ride to Fort Bragg. After dropping them off, Langley’s car collided with a soldier on a bicycle, and a report of the accident was made at the post. The men drove as far as Elizabethtown, where car problems forced them to stop. They went to a police station in that town, received permission from an officer to sleep in the car, and spoke with him the next morning. After spending the night and morning in Elizabethtown dealing with their car problems, they began the drive home to Wilmington. Along the way, they had to pass through a tollbooth at the Cape Fear River; neither man had the money for the toll, and this led to some discussion with the toll collector. Langley was able to borrow the toll money from a gas station attendant, and they crossed the bridge. At the time of Russell’s murder, Langley was at a party at his father’s Wilmington house, 360 miles from Asheville, where many friends and acquaintances were present.
Langley’s own letters from jail, addressed to the Fort Bragg soldiers and others, were handed over for mailing but seem to have been unposted by jail staff. Instead, a fellow inmate charged with mayhem, A.D. Cordell, was placed in Langley’s cell for two weeks to elicit incriminating statements. In return, the charges against Cordell were dropped.
At Langley’s December 1932 trial, the hotel steward, Mr. Pace, testified to the presence of the car with New Jersey plates near the filling station, but was unable to point to more than a general resemblance between Langley and the robber he observed. Cellmate Cordell testified that Langley had confessed that he had committed the murder but that he was confident of acquittal because he had arranged for many witnesses to testify falsely that he had been in Wilmington. Langley himself took the stand and told his story. He also produced several witnesses to attest to his presence at the Wilmington party. Their testimony only seemed to confirm Cordell’s claims, and they were roundly dismissed in the closing argument of prosecutor Zeb Nettles as a coached “bunch of parrots.” After two hours of deliberation, on December 23, 1932, Langley was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. Johnson was tried separately, but after a mistrial, the charges against him were dismissed for lack of evidence.
Langley was slated for death seven times during his tenure at the state prison in Raleigh. The first time, on February 10, 1933, his head was shaved in preparation for the electrocution, and he received a stay half an hour before his sentence would have been carried out. The execution was stayed on a technicality; in passing sentence, the trial judge had neglected to state that Langley was guilty of first-degree murder (the only class of murder punishable by death in North Carolina). In June 1933, the North Carolina Supreme Court remanded the case back to the trial court, and that court quickly resentenced Langley to death.
Meanwhile, Langley’s relatives (especially his sister, Juanita Matthews) and the Wilmington witnesses continued to challenge the conviction. Gradually, the evidence supporting Langley’s story grew. In one example of previously undisclosed evidence, the female witness to the crime, Mrs. Frank Edwards (who was not called by the prosecution at trial) provided an affidavit stating that she expressly told Sheriff Brown that the man she viewed in the jail cell - the black-haired Langley - was definitely not the taller fairhaired man she saw fleeing the crime scene. A new witness, who saw the crime from a hospital window, also swore that the robbers she observed were not Langley and Johnson. Contacts with these individuals and Langley’s alibi witnesses eventually bore fruit; upon receiving Langley’s consent to the withdrawal of his appeal, prosecutor Nettles agreed to recommend that his sentence be commuted to life, and this was done on September 7, 1933.
Governor J.C. Ehringhaus, who commuted the death sentence, assisted by the parole commissioner, Edwin Gill, continued to reinvestigate Langley’s case in a series of hearings in which the Elizabethtown police chief and the Fort Bragg soldiers testified on his behalf. He was finally paroled on October 31, 1934, and granted a full pardon on August 5, 1936. In 1947, pursuant to a North Carolina act providing for payment for innocent persons for the time they spent in prison, he was awarded $927.80 in state compensation. He stated that he planned to divide the money with co-defendant Johnson, who had also spent nearly a year in custody before he was freed. This plan apparently did not come to fruition; Langley was back in prison in Georgia by 1950 for bootlegging, having reportedly told the district court that he had “used that same $900 to get started in the whiskey-making business.”
– Researched by Sheila O'Hare and Michael L. Radelet
The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence. The Registry also maintains a more limited database of known exonerations prior to 1989.
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