Durham man in prison for 1975 murder set free
Posted October 17, 2014
Updated October 18, 2014
Yanceyville, N.C. — A Durham man who spent nearly 40 years behind bars for murder walked free from a Caswell County prison Friday afternoon, hours after a special judicial board found him factually innocent of the 1975 crime.
"I'm blessed to be out. I'm glad it's over with," said Willie Henderson Womble, reunited with his brother and other family members outside Dan River Work Farm in Yanceyville.
At the age of 22, Womble was convicted in 1976 of first-degree murder for the shooting death of Roy Brent Bullock in Butner. He spent 37 years behind bars before another man came forward last year, saying Womble had nothing to do with the crime.
During a hearing in June, witnesses told the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission – a state-run agency that investigates post-conviction claims of innocence – that Womble was coerced and scared into signing a confession that he was paid $20 to serve as a lookout.
Womble, who was illiterate and had a low IQ, however, maintained his innocence in a number of subsequent interviews with police.
"Clearly, this was a miscarriage of justice all the way through," Womble's attorney, Tom Burnette, said Friday afternoon. "As they say, justice is slow. It may take a while, but the right thing happened in this case."
The three-judge judicial panel in Granville County – hearing Womble's case on the recommendation of the Innocence Commission – ordered the 60-year-old's release after Granville County District Attorney Sam Currin apologized to him and conceded that he was innocent.
Currin was not the prosecutor in the original case.
Joseph Perry, who was also convicted of first-degree murder in the case, wrote a letter to the Innocence Commission in April 2013, saying another man, Albert Willis was the culprit in Bullock's Nov. 18, 1975, death.
Perry said he and Willis were driving around looking for places to rob and shot Bullock, a convenience store clerk, twice in the mouth and once in the chest during a confrontation.
Perry said he never told on Willis because of a pact the two had made. But Willis died in December 2012, he said, and he felt he was no longer obligated to keep the promise.
According to its website, since the Innocence Commission began its work in 2007, it has received hundreds of claims that have resulted in seven people have been exonerated.
Most recently, half-brothers Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were released after a judge overturned their convictions for the 1983 rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl because of new DNA evidence in the case.
"Mistakes can be made, and the commission is trying to ensure that those mistakes are made right," Sharron Stellato, the commission's associate director, said.