When Mike Unti and Sharon Smith took the case of a man sentenced to death for a notorious Columbus County murder, they were surprised at the prosecutor’s scant file: 240 pages of documents, a small file for a such big case.
Then the lawyers started pushing for what they knew must exist – police files, interview notes, State Bureau of Investigation reports and physical evidence. Slowly, the Whiteville Police Department produced files and evidence that had never been given to the lawyers defending Norfolk “Fuzzy” Best at his 1993 trial.
Six boxes of physical evidence were hidden in a tiny unlit room in the rafters of the Whiteville City Hall. Fingernail clippings, bloody clothes, swabs, slides and other biological evidence had spent years baking in an uninsulated garret in the North Carolina summers.
The lawyers dug up several folders of notes and reports from the Whiteville Police Department, including a tip about a suspicious car near the murder scene 12 hours before the bodies were found. The car turned out to be stolen. The thief, a habitual felon with a lengthy criminal record in several states, reportedly told friends that he had killed an elderly couple in Whiteville.
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“I am stunned by these notes,” said Rex Gore, the district attorney who prosecuted Best. “I wish they had been given to us. I am sure they would have generated discussion about this situation that I could now recollect.”
Gore said he never saw the police files. He still believes that Best is guilty of killing Leslie and Gertrude Baldwin.
But Best, through his lawyers, says the withheld evidence not only entitles him to a new trial, but proves his innocence. His lawyers argue that the crime scene evidence shows the Baldwins were killed a day or less before their bodies were found, a time that would, under the prosecution’s theory, eliminate Best as the killer.
Gore had argued that Best committed the murders two and a half days before the bodies were found.
The lawyers’ motion to free Best, filed in Bladen County Superior Court, comes as North Carolina has emerged as a sort of incubator of innocence efforts, with the nation’s first and only independent body dedicated to investigating such claims.
Earlier this month, the Innocence Inquiry Commission brought about the exonerations of death row’s longest serving inmate, Henry McCollum, and his brother, Leon Brown, freed after 31 years behind bars. Another Columbus County case is working its way through the courts and the commission; Joseph Sledge says DNA evidence proves his innocence of two murders for which he has been incarcerated 38 years.
Best has always professed his innocence, during police interrogation, on the witness stand, and during his 21 years on death row.
“I knew I was railroaded,” Best said in an interview at Central Prison in Raleigh, recalling the moment the jury found him guilty. “I knew I was railroaded.”
Now, nearly 23 years after the killings, the newly discovered evidence is stirring up strong feelings about a case that has languished in obscurity.
“I know Fuzzy did some stupid stuff growing up, being hardheaded,” said Vicky Best, a sister. “But I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe he killed that couple.”
The Baldwins’ two daughters still have a difficult time talking about the case.
“Fuzzy Best was the one who did it,” said Betsy Baldwin Marlowe. “It boggles my mind to think about this. I hope to see justice done.”
Fear and rage
For 37 years, Leslie and Gertrude Baldwin met the people of Columbus County on opposite sides of a camera.
From 1939 to 1976 in their studio over Guiton’s Drug Store on Madison Street, the Baldwins photographed babies and brides, graduates and grandparents, farmers and bankers.
The people of Whiteville were shocked by the murder of the popular couple, who were frail and in failing health. The News-Reporter led with an editorial “Senseless Loss: Fear, Rage in Our Community.” The Columbus County Sheriff’s Office reported that handgun permits jumped dramatically, issuing as many in the week after the crime as it did in a typical month.
On Dec. 13, 1991, the headlines carried welcome news: Police had arrested Best, a 37-year-old man with a long history of arrests for drugs, robbery, assault and DUI. Best had been released from jail two weeks before the Baldwins were killed.
Best came from a very different part of Whiteville. The oldest of eight children, he was raised by a single mother in a clapboard shack with an outhouse in the back yard.
Best was a slow learner and didn’t finish high school. As an adult, he drove long-distance truck routes and worked as a mechanic at auto shops in Whiteville.
Newspapers and a knife
A judge moved Best’s trial to neighboring Bladen County because of extensive pretrial publicity.
When the trial opened 18 months after the killings, District Attorney Gore painted a straightforward theory for the jury. Best worked in the Baldwins’ yard Saturday, Nov. 30, and returned that evening to kill and rob them. Best took a wad of $100 bills and spent the next 48 hours holed up in motel rooms, drinking and smoking crack cocaine with three women.
A policeman found the slain couple at 3:40 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 3. A window in the back door was broken, with glass scattered on the kitchen floor, a sign of a break-in. Leslie Baldwin, 82, was lying in the hallway, bludgeoned in the head and his neck slit.
Gertrude Baldwin, 77, was on her side in her bed, also beaten in the head and stabbed in the throat. A butcher knife was found on her bed.
As evidence the slayings took place Saturday night, a Whiteville police officer testified that he found the newspapers for Sunday, Monday and Tuesday on the Baldwins’ porch. Mr. Baldwin had a daily habit of retrieving the paper early every morning, reading it and returning to bed for a nap.
One of the Baldwins’ daughters testified that her mother filled her pill organizer every Thursday; the boxes in the pill organizer were empty for Thursday, Friday and Saturday but contained pills for Sunday through Wednesday.
And SBI Special Agent Michael Budzynski testified, using a science new to North Carolina courtrooms: DNA. Budzynski said he tested a vaginal swab taken from Gertrude Baldwin and found a match for Best’s DNA at one of six locations he analyzed.
Perhaps the most important evidence was a bloody fingerprint on a paring knife found on the floor by Leslie Baldwin’s body. An SBI agent testified it belonged to Best. Gore argued that Best had worn socks on his hand to avoid leaving fingerprints; a bloody sock left at the crime scene had a hole in it, allowing Best to leave his print.
Best testified and denied any involvement in the murder. He admitted smoking crack and holing up in the motels with the women. He testified that Mr. Baldwin gave him a small knife to use in scraping out the gutters, and that he had cut his hand doing so.
His testimony did not convince the jury, which deliberated 52 minutes before finding him guilty.
Files reveal suspect
Best has spent his 21 years on death row reading his Bible and staying fit, walking, doing situps, pushups and dips. Several close friends have been executed; while he tries to get along with all, he says he keeps to himself. He stays away from television – “It starts fights” – and prefers chess.
His case has moved little since a state judge turned down his request for a new trial in 1998. The judge also denied a request for access to the state’s files.
In 1996, the legislature passed a law requiring the state to produce all files to death row inmates and their lawyers, a law upheld by the state Supreme Court in 1998.
When Unti and Smith took over the case in 2011, they used the 1996 law to find tips given to the police and the SBI in the days after the Baldwins were killed.
On Wednesday, Dec. 4, the night after the Baldwins were found, an unknown woman called Whiteville police with a specific tip: A small Ford was driven through the neighborhood early Tuesday morning with the lights off. A friend of the caller went outside and asked the driver what he was doing; the driver, a white male with dark hair and mustache, identified himself as “Rick,” and said he was looking for a friend.
The caller gave the license plate number, and police tracked the car to Gary Derrick of Winnsboro, S.C. Two days earlier, on Monday, Derrick had reported to police that a roommate, Ricky Winford, had stolen the car.
In an interview with the SBI, Derrick said he received a call from a woman named Janet in Myrtle Beach. Janet said Winford had come by her apartment and told her he had “robbed, beaten and killed two people in Whiteville, North Carolina.” Derrick told the SBI that Winford had bragged about killing people in Texas, but Derrick didn’t believe him.
Winford was arrested in Derrick’s car on Wednesday, Dec. 4, in Louisiana after stealing gas from a station.
Best’s lawyers at trial, Craig Wright and Harold “Butch” Pope, filed affidavits stating that they don’t recall seeing any documents about Ricky Winford. They said that Gore, the district attorney, said he had an “open file” discovery policy, but in practice only gave defense lawyers limited access to his files. The SBI reports indicate that Gore was provided copies.
Gore left office in 2010 after losing a primary. In 2013, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor related to conduct in office and surrendered his law license for six months.
Gore said he opened his files to defense attorneys, but after reviewing court documents provided by The News & Observer, Gore said of his discovery practices: “I gave out more than what the statute required, but it does not mean open file discovery like it does now,” he said. “If I was using it in court, you got it.”
Under U.S. Supreme Court rulings, prosecutors must share all evidence favorable to a defendant, including evidence that can lead to proof of innocence.
Time of death
Police photographs and video of the crime scene are gruesome. A medical pathologist and a retired FBI agent working for Best looked at them and found evidence that undercuts the prosecution theory that the Baldwins were killed late Saturday night, 64 hours before their bodies were found.
As time passes, blood dries and turns brown, but the blood discovered at the crime scene was bright red and wet. There was a pool of liquid blood on Gertrude Baldwin’s bed. The officer noted a smell of blood and sweat in the house, but no strong odor of decomposition. The bodies had no discoloration or bloating, which generally begin 24 to 36 hours after death.
The first police officer to the scene noted that both victims were stiff from rigor mortis, a condition that typically disappears between 24 and 48 hours after death.
Another indication of time of death is livor mortis: blood settling by gravity in the body after death. Livor mortis shows up as red or purple discoloration. During the six to 18 hours after death, livor mortis is unfixed, as the blood can shift if a body is moved. After that, the livor is “fixed” and the blood no longer moves if the body is moved.
Police found Gertrude Baldwin lying in her bed on her left side. During the investigation, an SBI agent rolled Mrs. Baldwin’s body on her back as he examined her wounds.
At the autopsy, medical examiner Dr. Deborah Radisch noted “purple-posterior” livor mortis, meaning the blood settled on the backside of the body. Experts for Best say this indicates that livor mortis had not fixed when the agent moved the body Tuesday night, evidence that Mrs. Baldwin had not been dead 18 hours.
All those factors led the experts, retired FBI special agent Gregg McCrary and Dr. Christena Roberts, to conclude that the murders occurred sometime Monday or the early hours of Tuesday morning. That would be good news for Best; prosecutors said he was in motels from Sunday to Tuesday with women and drugs.
A faint match
The Best case was one of the first in North Carolina to feature DNA evidence.
Budzynski, the SBI agent, had to separate the DNA from the rape kit into two samples: a female fraction, containing Gertrude Baldwin’s DNA, and a male fraction, containing the DNA from a man, presumably the rapist. Budzynski ran tests on six DNA locations: five were inconclusive, but he testified one matched Best.
This weak match did not produce the powerful, one-person-in-a-billion statistic that DNA can generate. Budzynski testified that the DNA in the male fraction could belong to 6 percent of black men in North Carolina, or about 360 in Columbus County alone. But his testimony was convincing enough that the North Carolina Supreme Court’s decision in the Best case noted: “The defendant’s DNA matched one of the semen samples taken from Mrs. Baldwin.”
Budzynski’s testimony about the match was “completely baseless,” according to a DNA expert retained by Best’s lawyers.
The only DNA in the male fraction belonged to Gertrude Baldwin, according to Maher Noureddine, who received his doctorate in molecular genetics from UNC-Chapel Hill.
If Budzynski had properly separated the DNA into female and male fractions, and there was actually male DNA in the sample, the male DNA would appear at more than one marker, Noureddine said.
In a sworn affidavit, Noureddine said he could find no evidence of male DNA at the six locations. And the only location allegedly showing Best's DNA was at a DNA marker deemed unreliable at the time by the FBI. The results were faint and barely visible: in a manual published in 1994, the SBI cautioned that such faint results at that DNA marker were not reliable.
Budzynski admitted in court that he had difficulty processing the DNA in the SBI lab. Noureddine said Budzynski made no attempt to replicate or validate his test results.
“I find no scientific evidence to support the conclusion that the vaginal swabs contain any DNA other than that of the female victim,” Noureddine concluded.
Budzynski went on to head the SBI lab’s Forensic Biology Section and is now retired. He did not respond to phone calls or a letter for comment.
Whiteville Police Lt. Bobby Fowler said he spent weeks looking for evidence until he finally found the six boxes in the City Hall attic.
“It was hid in a corner in boxes,” Fowler said. “It was taped up, and you could see it hadn’t been opened in 20 years.”
The boxes contain biological evidence that has never been used in DNA tests. According to SBI lab notes, Caucasian hairs were found underneath Leslie Baldwin’s fingernails. Caucasian pubic hairs were found on Gertrude Baldwin. The medical examiner found sperm on her and preserved it on swabs and slides.
Given how the evidence was stored in plastic bags in an uninsulated attic for years, Best’s lawyers worry about the condition of the evidence and which items would still be intact. Unti, an appointed attorney, said he will request funding for DNA tests from N.C. Indigent Defense Services. He said if he had the money, he would test everything.
District Attorney Jon David declined to discuss the case.
As his case moves ahead, Best spends a lot of time standing on his bunk, peering out the thin strip of a window across the top of his cell. He likes to watch for wildlife: hawks, a groundhog, two bushy tailed foxes running along the wall, a rare white pigeon, a pair of geese feeding, one eating while the other watches.
Sometimes he just looks up into the sky.
“You get a certain sense of freedom, just a feeling that comes over you.”