N.C. Supreme Court orders new trial for death row inmate
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The North Carolina Supreme Court decided Friday to allow a new trial for a death row inmate convicted of robbing and murdering an elderly couple in their Whiteville, North Carolina, home in 1991.
Leslie Baldwin and his wife, Gertrude Baldwin, were 82 and 79 years old, respectively, when they were killed.
In a 5-1 ruling, the Court said the state of North Carolina had withheld potentially exculpatory evidence at the time of Norfolk Junior Best’s conviction.
Best was indicted for first-degree burglary, first-degree rape, robbery with a dangerous weapon, and two counts of first-degree murder.
In 2011, the state voluntarily provided Best’s attorney with some evidence. During a discovery phase, the attorney also found evidence “in a storage room in the attic of the Whiteville City Hall” that showed undisclosed forensic analysis, witness interviews, a lab report and names of two alternate suspects.
“This evidence creates a reasonable probability that the jury would have returned a different verdict had it been presented with the undisclosed evidence,” wrote a majority opinion from Justice Anita Earls.
Among the undisclosed material was that more than 70 hairs recovered from the crime scene, found on Gertrude Baldwin and underneath Leslie Baldwin’s fingernails, were identified as Caucasian. Best is Black.
Earls criticized the state for its failure to provide the material at the initial trial nearly three decades ago.
“We are sufficiently disturbed by the extent of the withheld evidence in this case, and by the materiality of that evidence, that it undermines our confidence in the jury’s verdict,” Earls wrote. “The exculpatory evidence withheld by the State for approximately twenty years was material.”
Still, at trial, the state presented results of a DNA test that showed sperm found at the scene was a partial match to Best and was about 25 times more likely to have come from a Black person than a white person.
Justice Paul Newby, who will soon take over as chief justice following a narrow victory in the 2020 election, disagreed with the court’s decision.
“It is unclear that reports of Caucasian hair particles found on the victims would be helpful to defendant. The DNA test implicating (Best) left only a 0.3% chance that the DNA left by the rapist belonged to a Caucasian person.”
He believes a jury would not have ruled differently if given the extra information.
“Even if the additional evidence to which defendant points had been available for trial, there is not a reasonably (sic) probability that the jury would have reached a different result,” Newby wrote.
The Supreme Court’s ruling reverses a previous denial by the Bladen County Superior Court for a new trial.
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Anderson is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.