Two freed 26 years after claiming innocence in Washington Co. murder

RALEIGH, N.C. (WRAL) – Two men who were locked up nearly 30 years for a murder they have long said they didn’t commit left prison this week in plea deals with the state.

WRAL reports that Brandon Jones, 49, and Leroy Spruill, 63, had to drop their long-running innocence claims as part of the deal, but the state agreed DNA evidence tested years after their convictions, while not conclusive, could have had “a direct and material bearing” on their case.

Jones and Spruill entered Alford pleas to second-degree murder and were sentenced to time served. An Alford plea allows someone to maintain his or her innocence while acknowledging there’s enough evidence to convict them.

The two men said in an interview Wednesday that they were relieved to be free and saddened by what they’ve lost.

“I wouldn’t say angry, I’d say more hurt,” Jones said, whose parents died while he was in prison.

“They all wanted to see this day, when I get out of here,” he said. “Now, they can’t.”

The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission reviewed Jones’ and Spruill’s case over nine years and, in Oct. 2018, unanimously decided there was enough evidence for a panel of judges to review the case. Those hearings were delayed, in part because authorities never located a witness whose story shifted several times but was key to the convictions.

Superior Court Judge Winston Gilchrist vacated the convictions from the bench Monday, then followed up with a written court order Wednesday morning. The men were released Tuesday afternoon.

“We always wanted to prove their innocence,” Chris Mumma, executive director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, said Wednesday. “(But) it was clear that it was just time to get them home.”

Spruill said he plans to settle back in Washington County, where he’s from, and where he was convicted. Jones will head to Tennessee, where he has family. He described himself as overwhelmed by the future.

“One day at a time,” Jones said in a Zoom interview. “One day at a time. It’s got to be. Somebody told me, ‘Don’t make no big decisions.’”

Mumma, the lead attorney for the duo, said Jones stayed with her Tuesday night and slept on top of the covers, with the lights on. When they went to buy clothes, Jones said he didn’t feel comfortable touching things.

In prison, he said with a thousand-yard stare, you don’t touch things that don’t belong to you.

Jones and Spruill were convicted in the 1995 murder of Frank Swain, who was beaten, stabbed and had his throat cut in what appeared to be a robbery. They maintained they were together at a bar that night and never wavered, despite plea deals promising much less prison time if either flipped on the other.

A tire iron found at the scene didn’t have any fingerprints on it, according to court records. It had DNA from three people, but none from the accused, records show. These and other inconsistencies left Mumma and others convinced that the two men didn’t commit this crime.

Willie Williams, an investigator in the initial murder case and now chief of police in Plymouth, declined to comment Wednesday on the judge’s decision.

“I don’t have all the details right now,” he said.

Washington County District Attorney Seth Edwards declined to comment as well because, before he became district attorney, he was Spruill’s defense counsel. He testified on Spruill’s behalf in innocence inquiry proceedings.

By dropping their innocence claims, Jones and Spruill forgo the possibility of a pardon and the $750,000 payment they’d each be eligible for if proven innocent. Mumma said the issue could be reopened, though, if new evidence is found.

She also said the Center on Actual Innocence would provide the men with some financial support and raise money online to help them restart their lives.

“I can’t say it strongly enough or often enough, but these two men are absolutely innocent,” she said. “Had nothing to do with the murder of Frank Swain.”

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