Innocence Commission recommends judicial review of 1976 murder conviction
Posted June 3
Raleigh, N.C. — 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.