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Innocence Commission recommends judicial review of 1976 murder conviction

Posted June 3

— Hoping to be exonerated in a 38-year-old murder case in Granville County, a Durham man told the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission Tuesday that police pressured him to confess to the crime even though he knew nothing about it.

Dressed in a prison uniform and wearing handcuffs and shackles, 60-year-old Willie Henderson Womble testified that a police detective threw him to the ground, threatened him and forced him to sign a confession that he did not write.

Womble, who is illiterate, said he didn't know what was in the statement and later refused to plead guilty to the Nov. 18, 1975, shooting death of Roy Brent Bullock during a robbery at a Butner convenience store.

"(Police said,) 'You're going to get the death penalty for first-degree murder,'" Womble, stuttering at times, told the eight-member panel in Raleigh. "I told them, 'I can't do that. I can't plead guilty to something I ain't took no part in and don't know nothing about.'"

After Womble's account and daylong testimony Monday, the eight-member Innocence Commission panel unanimously voted to send his case to a special three-judge panel for review.

A jury found Womble guilty of first-degree murder on July 7, 1976, and he spent more than 30 years in prison before another man convicted of the crime sent a letter to the Innocence Commission – a state-run agency that investigates post-conviction claims of innocence – saying Womble had nothing to do with it.

That man, Joseph Perry, said Monday that he decided to come forward only because the man who he says was actually with him died in 2012 and that he felt he would no longer be breaking a pact not to implicate him.

Perry only knew Womble – currently assigned to a minimum-security prison in Caswell County – from the neighborhood where they both lived, but they were not friends, he said.

Other witnesses told the Innocence Commission that Womble repeatedly denied any involvement in Bullock's death, and during Womble's trial, a girl who witnessed the shooting could not identify Womble.

Shirlyn Winters also told commissioners Tuesday that Womble – a good friend of her husband – was with them the entire weekend of the crime and that they learned about it on TV while playing cards.

"I remember (Womble) saying, 'How can somebody kill somebody cold-blooded?’" Winters said.

Womble, who she said was a frequent visitor to her home, was a gentle man who "was thirsting" to learn to read.

"Was Willie the kind of person you would have thought would have participated in an armed robbery?" asked Wade Smith, a criminal defense lawyer sitting on the Innocence Commission panel.

"No," Winters replied. "He helped people in the neighborhood. They paid him. He appreciated what people gave him."

The Innocence Commission took about an hour to make its decision, paving the way for North Carolina's chief justice to appoint within the next 30 days three judges to convene a special hearing about Womble's case.

There's no timeframe on when that hearing should occur. It's treated similarly to criminal trials except there's no jury and Womble and his attorneys have the burden of proof – meaning he would be considered guilty until proven innocent.

Since the Innocence Commission began its work in 2007, it has received more than 1,600 claims that have resulted in six other cases being submitted for judicial review. Of those cases, four people have been exonerated.

17 Comments

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  • Mom120 Jun 3, 6:25 p.m.

    they need to let him out now

  • Obamacare for America Jun 3, 6:22 p.m.

    I'm sorry, but I don't believe his story and also believe he is guilty.

  • greg69innc Jun 3, 4:17 p.m.

    the man signed a confession. I am not buying it. How can a man spend almost half a century in prison and now claims his innocence. Something sounds fishy to me. Why didn't these people that could place him somewhere else testify on his behalf. I know we have some over eager leo's as there are over eager individuals in every industry but this man must prove his innocence beyond a shadow of a doubt and if he can do so then by all means he should be freed but to treat him like a King is not right either. It is up to him to prove his innocence now and as it was then.

  • sandim50 Jun 3, 2:37 p.m.

    Wait a minute, we are going on a convicted felon;s word. Is their proof of what he is saying. If there is, I WANT HIM RELEASED.
    wE SEEM TO BE ON A WARPATH WITH leo'S THESE DAYS. aRE THERE BAD ONES OUT THERE. oh yes

  • JAT Jun 3, 2:36 p.m.

    Did Shirlynn Winters testify in the first trial?

  • jaimiemcphaul Jun 3, 2:29 p.m.

    Think about all pain that these families have went through. Somebody should be held responsible! Please people use your voices it is the only way they will ever hear us!

  • jonara Jun 3, 2:13 p.m.

    ...they have an innocent man locked up in prison. He should be let out immediately and wait for... View More

    — Posted by -Va-

    Brad won his appeal. His conviction has been vacated.

  • recontwice Jun 3, 2:12 p.m.

    The detective that made him sign that should spend an equal amount of time behind bars.

    — Posted by vile garbage

    Agreed. If more LEOS were held accountable for wrongful convictions the number of wrongful... View More

    — Posted by less_govt_is_better_govt

    As long as law enforcement and DAs has no fear of retribution their only concern will continue to be their conviction rate!!

  • Tarheel Takeover Jun 3, 2:09 p.m.

    They gave this man 80 yrs. in prison, he's working on a prison farm, and all he had was 13 minor infractions in 37 yrs. This is slavery all over again. Let him free. Even though the State can't give him enough to repay the torment and lost he had to endure over those 37 years. They should free him and treat him like a King for the rest of his life.

  • -Va- Jun 3, 1:53 p.m.

    ...they have an innocent man locked up in prison. He should be let out immediately and wait for his day in court...

    He was convicted in court 37 years ago. If he had good behavior in prison, I'm somewhat surprised that he isn't eligible for parole. Then again we locked up Brad Cooper with potentially planted evidence. And if he looses his appeal, he'll be applying to the NC Innocence Inquiry Commission in about thirty years or so.

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