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John Alford

On July 12, 1974, two men robbed One-Hour Martinizing Cleaners in Charlotte, North Carolina. During the robbery, one of the perpetrators shot and killed the store’s operator, 65-year-old Alma B. Wood, with a sawed-off shotgun. The victim’s wife, Margaret Wood, and several others witnessed the crime. Margaret Wood told police that the robbers escaped with a bag containing about $1,ooo in cash and checks.

On August 9, 1974, Charlotte police issued an arrest warrant for 19-year-old Larry Waddell. By October, newspapers reported that police had not located Waddell, and a Mecklenburg County judge declared Waddell an outlaw, which the newspapers said permitted North Carolina residents to kill Waddell without fear of prosecution.

At around 3 p.m. on November 6, 1974, two armed robbers entered Viking Imports Foreign Car Parts and Accessories in Charlotte, where they shot and killed Gregory Leonard, a 24-year-old customer. The robbers left with the cash from the register. Four employees witnessed the crime. One told police that she recognized one of the perpetrators as 18-year-old Sherman Carter, who had been in her driver’s education class three years earlier. Police sought Carter but were unable to locate him.

On November 19, 1974, Charlotte police received a tip about an apartment where Larry Waddell could be found. At the apartment, police found Waddell, Carter, and 22-year-old John Alford. The police arrested the three men. Carter gave a statement to police admitting his involvement in the Viking Imports robbery and identifying Waddell as the shooter. At the time of the arrests, Alford was wearing a watch taken during the Viking Imports robbery.

The four Viking Imports witnesses viewed various lineups that included Alford, Carter, and Waddell. Two of the witnesses picked out Carter, none identified Waddell, and all four identified Alford.

In February 1975, a grand jury indicted Alford and Carter on first-degree murder charges for Leonard’s killing.

In March 1975, Waddell was tried and convicted for the murder of Alma Wood. He was sentenced to death.

Carter and Alford were tried together for Leonard’s murder in early April 1975 in Mecklenburg County Superior Court before Judge Lacy Thornburg. Attorney James L. Roberts, who had never previously tried a murder case, represented Alford. District Attorney Peter S. Gilchrist III prosecuted the case. Roberts’s motion for the defendants’ trials to be separated was denied. Carter and Alford were both Black, and all 12 jurors were white.

The four Viking employees testified for the prosecution, and each identified Alford as the shooter.

The state did not introduce Carter’s confession, which identified Waddell, rather than Alford, as his accomplice. Roberts was not permitted to introduce the statement in Alford’s defense because Carter wasn’t testifying. Roberts explained in a later interview that “you can’t force a man to testify against himself – and the statement certainly would have amounted to that.” When interviewed after the trial, Gilchrist said that he did not introduce the statement because he believed it was unnecessary based on the strength of the witness identifications and because he believed Carter had been lying to protect Alford.

Alford took the stand, denying any involvement, and testified that he was with friends playing basketball at the time of the crime. Roberts also presented four witnesses who testified that Alford was with them playing basketball on the day of the murder from about 1:00 p.m. until after dark, without leaving for any amount of time. Roberts introduced evidence that Alford was left-handed, while the witnesses described a right-handed shooter. Witnesses also described the shooter as having a goatee. A doctor testified to Alford’s medical condition that made him unable to grow facial hair. Evidence of Alford’s good character and lack of any serious criminal record was also introduced. Carter and his attorney did not offer a defense.

The jury found both men guilty, and they were sentenced to death on April 9, 1975.

On March 2, 1976, the North Carolina Supreme Court reversed Alford’s conviction and ordered a new trial, holding that the trial judge had erred in denying Alford’s motion to be tried separately. The court found that the admission of Carter’s statement identifying Waddell as his accomplice would have strengthened Alford’s defense. If Carter and Alford had been tried separately, then Carter could have been called to testify in Alford’s trial, and Carter’s confession naming Waddell as his accomplice could have been admitted as evidence. The court held that as a result of the joint trial, Alford’s “defense was so prejudiced as to amount to a denial of due process and his right of confrontation.”

Alford’s second trial began in June 1976 before Judge Sam J. Ervin III. Attorney James “Bill” Walker defended Alford, and Gilchrist again prosecuted the case. The state again presented testimony from the four Viking employees, each of whom identified Alford. The defense called Carter to the stand. Carter initially refused to answer any questions to avoid self-incrimination. However, when Walker asked Carter whether he was with Alford at all on November 6, 1974, Carter answered that he was not.

Alford testified about his whereabouts on the day of the crime and denied any involvement. He testified that he heard about the crime and that Carter was a suspect on a newscast several hours after the robbery-murder occurred. Alford said he saw Carter later that night, outside the Big Brothers club where Alford had been playing pool. Alford testified that Carter told him that he had been drinking when he ran into Waddell, who persuaded him to participate in a robbery. Alford testified that Carter told him he was not sure whether Waddell had intended to shoot Leonard.

Alford also testified about the day of his arrest. He said that he and a friend, Willie McClure, were hanging out when McClure got a message from his wife telling him to come to the apartment where the arrest would later take place. He said no one answered the doorbell, so they walked inside and encountered two women, the girlfriends of Carter and Waddell. He testified that a wristwatch was sitting on the table, so he tried it on after removing his own watch. He said that just a second later, police officers swarmed the apartment and arrested him, as well as Waddell and Carter, who were both upstairs. Alford said he still had the watch on during his interrogation, at which time a police officer told him the watch had been taken during the Viking Imports robbery.

The jury found Alford not guilty on June 15, 1976. After his release, he told reporters: “You can’t imagine what it’s like – being in Death Row when you haven’t done anything wrong.”

- Meghan Barrett Cousino
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Reported Crime Date:1974
Age at the date of crime:22
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID