Local News

N.C. Supreme Court Ruling Upholds Short-Form Murder Indictment

Posted July 16, 2003

— North Carolina's highest court has upheld a century-old practice of using indictments without aggravating factors in murder cases - a decision that affects virtually every death row prisoner in the state.

The state Supreme Court made the ruling in the case of death row prisoner Henry Lee Hunt. Hunt's attorney argued that the original indictment did not include vital information for Hunt to get a fair hearing. The high court upheld that indictment.

The ruling likely sets in motion the execution of Hunt and other death row inmates.

Hunt was convicted for the 1984 killing of killings of Jackie Ransom and Larry Jones in Robeson County. A jury sentenced him to death.

In April, Stuart Meiklejohn, Hunt's attorney, argued before the state Supreme Court that the death penalty should be overturned. He claimed aggravating factors that are key in a jury's decision were not included in the original short-form indictment.

Aggravating factors in this case include past violent offenses and killing for money. The court ruled excluding those from the indictment does not matter.

"I think it's a very significant decision given that over 200 convictions were subject to be overturned had this decision come out differently," said Alan Woodlief, a Campbell University law professor.

Woodlief said the high court's decision likely means the state will begin executing inmates again.

Before Wednesday's ruling, prosecutors were scrambling to make their capitol murder cases stand-up. They made backup plans in case the Supreme Court overturned the Hunt conviction.

For example, Robeson County's district attorney re-indicted defendants in 15 murder cases. Moore County postponed one trial. The district attorney in Cumberland County was considering going after new indictments in 30 murder cases. Wednesday's ruling makes those moves moot, because it reaffirms existing state law.

Three scheduled executions have already been delayed awaiting the ruling.

"Given that this is a pronouncement from the North Carolina Supreme Court, we can assume that at least for the immediate future, the next several years -- unless there is some reason to revisit it -- this will be the law of the state," Woodlief said.

The decision does not have immediate effect. It must be certified and the attorney general must call for executions to resume.

By phone, Meiklejohn said he is disappointed and that he will continue to fight to save his client. He would not say if that means taking the case to the United States Supreme Court.

Hunt was convicted of a murder-for-hire and the killing of a witness. He came within 35 hours of being executed Jan. 22 before the court agreed to hear his appeal.


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