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All NRE reports represent a moment in time. For the most accurate data, please search on the Detailed View page. The website is updated daily, frequently with exonerations that occurred in the past.
On the night of July 23, 1918, 60-year-old Riley Easter was shot to death in the doorway of his house in Surry County, North Carolina, near the border with Virginia.
The following day, Surry County’s Sheriff Belton arrested six men for the murder: Joe Cain, Walter Cain, Gardner Cain, Sherman Hicks, John Hicks, and Joe Bowles, all from neighboring Carroll County, Virginia. Sherman Hicks was released the next day, after witnesses said he was not involved in the crime.
The Cain and Easter families had been embroiled in a dispute for weeks leading up to Riley Easter’s death. It was known by many in the local community – including the Easters – that the Cain family was operating an illegal whiskey still on their property. Riley Easter’s son, James, would later testify that he had tipped off Sheriff Belton about the still about a week before the shooting. The sheriff did not have the gasoline needed to travel to the Cain house after receiving this tip, so James Easter said he took the still and hid it for the sheriff. James Easter testified that Walter Cain had then come to the Easter house twice and warned that there would be trouble if the still was not returned. When the still had not been returned by July 23, Easter said, Joe Cain, Walter Cain, Gardner Cain, John Hicks, and Joe Bowles had come up to the house shooting, killing Riley Easter and wounding Riley’s 7-year-old granddaughter.
The five men identified were indicted and held in the jail in Dobson. Newspaper articles about the arrests often made note of Bowles’s refusal to wear shoes.
The defendants were tried in Surry County Superior Court in February 1919 before a jury, with Judge Lane presiding. The case was prosecuted by Solicitor Porter Graves and W. Frank Carter, with John Folger representing the defendants. James Easter and other witnesses from the victim’s family testified about the crime. Available records do not provide details of the defense, other than to say that Hicks and Walter Cain provided alibis. The jury announced the verdicts on February 8, 1919, acquitting Walter Cain and Hicks, and finding Gardner Cain, Joe Cain, and Bowles guilty of first-degree murder. Judge Lane sentenced the three men to death by electrocution.
In February 1920, Governor T.W. Bickett declined to commute the death sentences of Gardner and Joe Cain, but commuted Bowles’s sentence to 20 years in prison. The request for Bowles’s commutation stated that testimony showed the Cains had given Bowles liquor prior to the shooting, that Bowles had no knowledge that the Cains intended to kill Easter, and that Bowles had no weapon with him at the time of the murder. The request also made note that Bowles was of low intellect.
On March 5, 1920 – the day Gardner and Joe Cain were scheduled to be executed – Gardner admitted his involvement in the crime. He provided his lawyer with a written statement that said he and Joe’s son, Walter, had fired many shots at the victim. The statement also said that during the shooting, Joe Cain and Joe Bowles were standing together, some distance away, and were not armed in any way. The morning of the scheduled execution, Joe Cain also provided a written statement that Walter and Gardner were the two shooters. Later that day, Joe and Gardner Cain were put to death by electrocution.
Based on these statements by the Cain brothers, a perjury charge was filed against Walter Cain, who had testified at the trial that he was not present the night of Easter’s murder. Walter Cain pleaded guilty to perjury in May 1921.
On May 27, 1921, Governor Cameron Morrison pardoned Bowles. The pardon was recommended by Graves, the trial prosecutor, who told Morrison that he believed Bowles was innocent of shooting Easter and had already been sufficiently punished for being in bad company.
– 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.