Lawyers for death row inmate Norfolk “Fuzzy” Best were optimistic in 2012 when they found six boxes of evidence in the attic of the Whiteville City Hall, evidence not shared during Best’s 1993 trial for the murder of an elderly couple.
The police notes, names of alternate suspects and biological samples could prove Best’s innocence, the lawyers wrote in court filings requesting DNA tests on the newly discovered evidence.
Those test results are in and give almost incontrovertible evidence that Best stabbed to death Leslie and Gertrude Baldwin in their Whiteville home in 1991. A vaginal swab taken from Gertrude Baldwin, who was raped, contains sperm that matches Best’s DNA.
The report from Sorenson Forensics in Utah said the chance that the DNA could come from an unrelated male in the United States is 490 trillion to one.
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Betsy Baldwin Marlowe, a daughter, said she was pleased when she learned of the results.
“This has been ongoing for too long,” said Marlowe, who lives in Florence, S.C. “This has been stressful for the family.”
The News & Observer wrote about Best’s case in September 2014.
The murders of the popular and well-known couple shocked the people of Columbus County, located in the rural southeast corner of the state. For 37 years, the Baldwins ran a photography studio in Whiteville, capturing the pictures of babies and brides, graduates and grandparents, farmers and bankers.
Within two weeks of the killing, police arrested Best, who had many arrests for drugs, robbery and assault and who was recently released from jail. Best, the oldest of eight children, was raised in a clapboard shack with a backyard outhouse by a single mother who sold moonshine to make ends meet.
Then-District Attorney Rex Gore painted a straightforward theory for the jury. Best worked in the Baldwins’ yard one Saturday 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.
Best testified he was innocent. But the jury convicted him and sentenced him to death.
After the U.S. Supreme Court turned down his appeal, Best continued to claim innocence. A post-conviction lawyer was appointed, but the case languished.
In 2011, Raleigh lawyers Mike Unti and Sharon Smith took over the case and developed evidence supporting Best’s claims. Much of it was found in six boxes in a tiny garret in the attic of Whiteville City Hall, not at the police department or courthouse where evidence is typically stored.
The lawyers discovered evidence of alternate suspects, one who allegedly told a girl friend that he stabbed and killed an elderly couple.
They developed forensic evidence showing the murders occurred 24 hours or less before the bodies were discovered, a time when prosecutors said Best was partying in a nearby town. Prosecutors said the murders occurred 64 hours before the couple was found.
And Unti and Smith cast doubt on the DNA evidence presented at trial, one of the first cases in North Carolina to use DNA. Prosecutors presented evidence of a weak DNA match with Best. A molecular geneticist hired by Best’s lawyers criticized the DNA testimony as “completely baseless.”
Earlier this year, Unti and Smith submitted some of the newly discovered evidence for DNA testing, including vaginal swabs and slides collected during Gertrude Baldwin’s autopsy.
The results, recently filed in court, show a match to Best.
“I’m glad the science has advanced so much that we can have such definitive results,” said Gore, the former district attorney who tried the case. “I hope this will give peace to anyone who had questions.”
Unti spent four years investigating and preparing the case on Best’s behalf. He said he was surprised and disappointed by the results.
“Assuming everything was processed correctly and that there are no problems with the chain of custody of the evidence, this is a match,” he said.
Unti said Best wanted the newly discovered evidence tested. He has visited his client on death row several times to discuss the results.
“Mr. Best is adamant that he did not commit the crime,” Unti said. “He said the test results are not accurate and that he is innocent.”
Unti said he will work to examine the integrity of the evidence handling and test results.
“The reason the state funds the post-conviction process is to ensure there is a re-examination of the evidence in capital cases,” he said. “The state wants as much certainty as possible as to whether the verdict is a correct one.”
Best remains on death row at Central Prison. North Carolina has not held an execution since 2006 because of disputes over execution methods.