But Mr. Hunt's lawyers have raised troubling questions
about whether authorities nabbed the right man. The facts suggest not
only that the state may be about to execute the wrong person, but also
that the killer died behind bars.
Here's what we know for sure: Jackie Ransom was killed
for $25,000 in insurance money. Roger Locklear, who was involved with
Jackie Ransom's wife, hired A.R. Barnes to commit the murder. A.R.
Barnes recruited his brother, Elwell Barnes, to help. Jackie Ransom was
shot to death in some woods near a bar. A week later, someone --
apparently fearing that he might tell police what he knew about the
murder -- shot Larry Jones and buried him in a shallow grave.
First, A.R. Barnes confessed to the crimes. Then he
recanted and blamed Henry Lee Hunt, who had a criminal record and was
in prison for a drug offense. Other witnesses also pointed to Mr. Hunt.
A jury convicted him in 1985 and sentenced him to death.
There were problems with the evidence prosecutors
presented, such as the two shovels prosecutors say were used to kill
and bury Mr. Jones. Neither shovel bore soil matching dirt from the
grave site, but the jury was never told of any discrepancies.
To make matters worse, State Bureau of Investigation and
Lumberton police destroyed field notes and other records that might
have helped Mr. Hunt's appeals -- in at least one case after the
defense asked for the files.
Mr. Hunt has contended consistently he didn't commit the
murders. He has twice taken and passed lie detector tests administered
by polygraph expert L.S. Fulmer of Davidson. That doesn't establish Mr.
Hunt's innocence, but it does raise further doubts about his guilt.
So does an affidavit signed by a man who died in prison
nearly three years ago. Elwell Barnes, who was originally recruited by
his brother to help kill Jackie Ransom, said in an affidavit signed in
1989 that he and three other men were responsible for the murders.
Henry Lee Hunt "has been convicted for a crime that, A.R. Barnes,
Jerome Ratley, Roger Locklear and myself committed," he wrote. The
affidavit was notarized by a Central Prison guard and notary public
named M.G. McNeill, but that signed confession came into Mr. Hunt's
possession only in 2002.
Gov. Easley has the unenviable constitutional duty of
considering clemency in capital punishment cases. He must decide
whether the state should execute Mr. Hunt -- and whether the evidence
is so sketchy that the state risks committing an injustice as
unconscionable as the 1984 murders.
This is one more reason why the governor ought to impose
a moratorium on executions until the state can devise a system in which
death sentences can be rendered without reasonable doubts about the
guilt or innocence of the accused. The state has failed that test in
the case of Henry Lee Hunt.