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Imprisoned, and long claiming innocence, NC man alleges mistreatment at NC prison

Posted October 12, 2021 5:00 p.m. EDT
Updated October 12, 2021 8:18 p.m. EDT

— A man imprisoned more than 25 years for a murder he may not have committed says he was denied pain medication and other care in a North Carolina prison after hip surgery left him with 48 staples in his side.

Leroy Spruill, 63, said he was threatened with solitary confinement when he complained. He was injured four years ago when a vehicle slammed into a prison transport vehicle headed out on work detail.

Because of that accident, Spruill's hip was replaced this August. He said Greene Correctional Institution gave him a wheelchair, with no brakes, that was too small for his 6’5” frame. The chair rubbed against his staples, he said.

Spruill also said he had to hunch over for the nearly 20-mile ride back to prison the day after his surgery because he couldn't sit upright in the wheelchair inside the transport.

“It happened on a Monday,” Spruill told WRAL News in a interview at Greene Correctional. “They brought me back here Tuesday, and I got no meds or nothing from, just, say Wednesday morning til Friday night.”

Spruill described the pain as intense.

The state prison system declined to respond to Spruill’s detailed accusations, saying health privacy rules prevent them from doing so.

“However, prisons is committed to providing quality health care to all offenders and adhering to the appropriate standard of quality of care as required by the U.S. Constitution,” spokesman John Bull said in a statement.

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Spruill and Brandon Jones, 49, were convicted in 1995 of the murder of Frank Swain, a drug dealer killed in his Washington County trailer.

Swain was beaten with a tire iron, stabbed repeatedly, and his throat was cut. Spruill and Jones were arrested a year later, with Jones accused of slitting Swain’s throat and Spruill of holding him down.

The two men have always claimed innocence, saying they were together that night at an area bar.

They refused efforts to flip on each other for lighter sentences, and their conviction depended in large part on the testimony of a woman named Dana Maybin, who said she was with them at the murder scene, but whose story shifted repeatedly.

A judicial panel set to review the case has been delayed twice because authorities can't find Maybin, according to Chris Mumma, executive director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence and Jones and Spruill's attorney. It will likely proceed next month without her.

Excerpt from the Jones/Spruill Innocence Commission hearing transcript, page 880.

Maybin, Jones’ ex-girlfriend, wrote in a diary that she lied about Jones’ involvement because of a grudge, according to hearing transcripts. She gave a recorded statement to the defense team saying she didn’t know anything about the murder and wasn’t present for it, Mumma told the state’s Parole Commission in a letter late last year.

One of the original investigators told The News & Observer for a 2004 retrospective on the case that Maybin knew details of the crime that only someone who witnessed it could have known and “never changed her mind, once she told the whole story.” But John Floyd, Plymouth’s police chief at the time of The N&O piece, told the newspaper that Maybin told him she had lied.

Spruill and Jones' DNA, hair or fingerprints weren't found at the bloody scene. Also, there was no female DNA in Swain's pockets, though Maybin said she rooted around in them for money. All of the DNA tested from the tire iron, Mumma said, belongs to someone other than Spruill and Jones.

"It's the lack of DNA evidence that proves their innocence," she said.

Excerpt from Chris Mumma letter to NC Parole Commission re: Brandon Jones and Leroy Spruill, December, 2020.

The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, a state panel that investigates innocence claims, found enough reason to refer the case – unanimously – back to court. Jones and Spruill will get a chance to convince a three-judge panel of their innocence in November, potentially wrapping up a review that began in 2009.

A jury convicted Jones in September 1995, and he was sentenced to life plus 40 years. With the death penalty still on the table, Spruill’s attorneys advised him to plead no contest, he said. He did and got the same sentence, life plus 40 years.

Spruill said investigators offered him seven-and-half years if he would testify against Jones.

“Who offers somebody seven-and-a-half years for killing somebody?” Spruill said. “My story will never change. I’ll go to my grave with this.”

Said Mumma: "These are two cases where, if someone said, ‘Lay yourself down on this train track, and the train will stop if they’re innocent,’ I would do it in a heartbeat."

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Spruill figures he’s ridden 100,000 miles across North Carolina, setting up security cameras and doing other jobs as part of a prison work crew.

In August 2017, some time around 7 a.m., a car crossed the center line and rammed the work crew’s vehicle.

“I was the one that got hurt the worst,” Spruill said.

Spruill had screws and pins placed in his left hip, and eventually the prison system got him a special pair of boots to even up his gait.

“Took an act of Congress,” he said.

Finally, the pain was too much, and he went for surgery in late August at Vidant Medical Center in Greenville, about a half hour northeast of the prison.

Spruill returned the next night to Greene Correctional in “the raggediest wheelchair you’ve ever seen,” he said. The pain was excruciating, and Spruill said the people at Vidant told him they'd send medication with him, but he didn’t receive any at the prison for three days.

Leroy Spruill medical records excerpt, Aug. 25, 2021.

Standing up in the bathroom, he worried the wheelchair would slide out from under him, he said. If other inmates didn’t help, he wouldn’t have had much help at all, he said. When he complained, Spruill said an officer told him, “Keep on, and I’ll put your ass in the hole,” though eventually another officer got him a larger wheelchair.

When Spruill asked to have his bandages changed, he said an officer told him, “Y’all inmates are like babies.”

“Not only me, somebody else shouldn’t be treated like this,” Spruill said. “I mean I don’t care if you’re in here for something you did do.”

Medical records Mumma provided to WRAL News indicate Spruill's bandages weren't changed for nine days and that they soaked his bed and clothes. That same record indicates the wound itself was "very clean," though, and "looks great."

Leroy Spruill medical records excerpt, Aug. 31, 2021.

Mumma said she sees a pattern: People going through the Innocence Commission process – her clients – get treated differently, especially as their cases come to court.

“In some ways, I hope it’s because they’re claiming innocence and we’re litigating, and it’s not because this is how all the inmates are treated,” she said. “I hate that it’s my clients that seem to go through this, but I think I hate more to think that this is how everyone is treated.”

Bull, the state prisons spokesman, said everyone is treated the same.

“There are policies and procedures that dictate how prisoners are treated,” he said this week. “These are adhered to. These are important.”

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Not only is Spruill up before the three-judge panel soon, he’s up for parole.

He and Jones were convicted before the state’s sentencing laws changed, and Spruill was first eligible after 10 years. A spokesman for the state’s Parole Commission confirmed Spruill is under consideration now.

Spruill said he believes he’s been denied before, and that will be denied, again, because he hasn’t expressed remorse for a crime he didn’t commit. He said he was told this in no uncertain terms during a review. Spruill has had just one infraction in his time behind bars and, before the pandemic, he was frequently allowed out of prison with a sponsor, as well as on work details.

Parole Commission spokesman Greg Thomas said remorse isn’t a requirement, but, “if they do express their remorse for the crime, it is considered along with any other facts or comments received in the case.”

As for Spruill’s injuries, he’s doing better. He can walk, sometimes without a cane. He can lift his injured leg in a way he couldn’t for years. He does physical therapy at the prison.

“You give me another couple of weeks, and I’ll be good,” he said during a September interview with WRAL News, which Mumma attended.

“You are the most positive man I’ve ever met,” Mumma replied.

Spruill’s face fell.

“But it’s not getting me nowhere,” he said.

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