On May 15, 1975, Robert Wayne Hinson, the assistant manager of Collins Department Store in Monroe, North Carolina, was abducted, with two men forcing him into their car. The men drove Hinson to Collins Department Store and ordered him to open the store safe. Hinson insisted he did not know the combination and had no means of opening the safe. The men eventually took the $35 in Hinson’s wallet and let him out of the car about a mile from his home.
Sandy Sawyer and Lonnie Sawyer, brothers from nearby Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, were pulled over because they drove the same kind of car as the kidnappers. Hinson quickly identified them as his kidnappers. The Sawyers’ lawyer, Coble Funderburk, met with them for just one hour before their trial. At the trial, Hinson’s identification of the Sawyer brothers served as the basis for the case against them. Several of Lonnie’s family members testified that he had been home with them at the time of the crime. The jury believed Hinson. On June 25, 1975, Lonnie Sawyer, age 18, and Sandy Sawyer, age 21, were convicted of the kidnapping and robbery.
The Sawyer brothers came from a poor rural family that had eleven other children. Nonetheless, the family pulled together enough money to hire private investigator Lester Burns in an effort to prove Lonnie’s and Sandy’s innocence. Burns arranged to have the brothers take PSE tests – a version of a lie detector test – and the results for both men indicated that they were not involved in kidnapping Hinson. Burns then contacted producers for an NBC investigative news show. The producers agreed that they were interested in further investigating the case.
This NBC investigation led to four men, all incarcerated at the Harnett Youth Center at the time, who reported that another prisoner – Robert Erskine Thomas – had admitted to them that he was the one who had kidnapped Hinson. Two of these prisoners were interviewed by NBC about the Thomas’ confession, and another prisoner signed an affidavit regarding what he had heard. Thomas himself admitted to the kidnapping on videotape, though he later recanted his confession. NBC learned that just a week before the crime, Thomas had applied for a job at Collins Department Store. In addition, investigators turned up a sketch of the perpetrators that had never been made available to the defense.
During Burns’ investigation, Hinson reported that Lester Burns had contacted him and posed as a State Bureau of Investigation officer. In December 1976, Burns was convicted of impersonating a police officer and sentenced to six months in jail and a fine of $250.
With the new evidence from the NBC investigation in hand, the Sawyers filed a motion for a new trial. The motion was rejected in late October 1976 because it had not been filed within a year of the verdict, as required under North Carolina law. However, the judge opted to send the denied motion and related documentation on to North Carolina Governor Jim Holshouser. Holshouser asked the State Bureau of Investigation to look into the case further. In January 1977, Governor Holshouser issued a pardon based on innocence to both Lonnie and Sandy Sawyer. Despite the pardons, Hinson continued to insist that the Sawyers were the men who had kidnapped him.
- Meghan Barrett Cousino
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.
We welcome new information from any source about exonerations already on our list and about cases not in the Registry that might be exonerations.