A North Carolina judge could decide as soon as next month whether new evidence in the murder of Michael Jordan’s father will earn the convicted triggerman a new trial.
Robeson County teenagers Daniel Green and Larry Demery were convicted 20 years ago of fatally shooting James Jordan during a late-night carjacking along U.S. 74.
Based in part on Demery’s eye-witness testimony and the findings of a state forensics expert, a jury found that Green fired the shot that killed the 56-year-old Jordan as he awoke from a roadside nap on an overnight drive to Charlotte.
Green’s attorneys — Scott Holmes, an N.C. Central University law professor, and Ian Mance of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice — have long argued that Green was not present when James Jordan died. They say Demery shot Jordan, then persuaded Green, his friend, to help get rid of the body. The lawyers say that makes their client an accessory after the crime, not a murderer.
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Now, the Durham-based defense team says it has new evidence that challenges major parts of the prosecution’s case, while bolstering their request for a new trial. They claim that misleading testimony and misconduct by the prosecutor and jury helped send Green to prison for a murder he did not commit.
The evidence outlined in court documents include:
▪ A sworn statement from the trial’s former jury forewoman who admits she did her own investigation of Jordan’s murder, which violated a judge’s order. Paula Locklear says that during the trial, she visited the South Carolina creekside where the body was found and developed her own theory on how the killing occurred. A Charlotte legal expert says her action amounts to a “a tremendous problem” for the original case and could get Green’s conviction overturned.
▪ A defense attorney’s affidavit that appears to show that a state forensics expert has recanted pivotal testimony that she found James Jordan’s blood in his car. Jennifer Elwell, a veteran serologist with the State Bureau of Investigation, is quoted in Mance’s declaration that her tests were far more inconclusive than what she described in court. She also admits withholding results of four inconclusive tests that could have undermined the prosecution’s theory of how Jordan died, the affidavit says.
Green’s attorneys say in their motions that Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt intentionally exaggerated Elwell’s findings during the trial and failed to share her notes from the inconclusive tests, which appears to have violated the trial judge’s order on the exchange of evidence.
In another twist, the defense documents also claim that Elwell will say she was ordered by a supervisor to destroy the only known sample of Jordan’s blood shortly after the trial. The documents quote Elwell in saying that in more than 20 years with the state, she had never been asked to dispose of blood evidence from a murder trial before. She did so after testifying that the sample would be preserved “for years and years and years.” Green’s defense attorneys at the time were never told that the evidence had been destroyed, documents say.
▪ An affidavit from a former Robeson County newspaper editor who says Demery told her he killed Jordan after the victim witnessed a drug transaction. In her November declaration, the editor says she never reported the confession in her paper nor told anyone about it.
▪ A defense allegation that Britt and the Robeson County Sheriff’s Department conspired to hide a secret from the jury. They alleged that Sheriff Hubert Stone, whose office helped run the Jordan investigation, had an out-of-wedlock son who was a known cocaine dealer and the first person called on James Jordan’s car phone in the aftermath of the murder. Green’s defense team believes Demery, who knew the dealer, made that call.
The judge at Green’s trial blocked jurors from hearing about that relationship between the sheriff and the drug trafficker, who defense documents claim was also friends with many of Stone’s deputies. Green’s lawyers contend the connections could challenge the credibility of Demery, Stone and his deputies, and “the entire Jordan investigation.”
Holmes and Mance have asked Robeson County Superior Court Judge Robert Floyd to hold a hearing on their evidence. The state’s next filing is due by the end of the month. Floyd could rule at any time after that.
The attorney general’s office, which has taken over the case during the recent appeals, declined to comment last week. But in a 200-page response filed late last year, special deputy attorneys general Jonathan Babb and Danielle Elder dismissed the defense findings as mostly irrelevant and inadmissible.
They say Green was convicted as the killer based on an imposing amount of evidence, and that the verdict has been upheld on several appeals. They say the case should not be reopened.
Britt could not be reached for comment last week. In court documents, he says he did nothing improper in his handling of the case.
Retired SBI agent Tony Underwood of Charlotte, who helped find Green and Demery, told the Observer last week he remains “100 percent” convinced of Green’s guilt.
“The physical evidence was overwhelming,” Underwood said. “If he’s not guilty, nobody’s guilty.”
Much of the country first met James Jordan in 1991, after son Michael, now owner of the Charlotte Hornets, had just led the Chicago Bulls to their first NBA championship. While his teammates celebrated in their locker room, the best basketball player in the world hugged the trophy and cried while his father patted his back.
The 56-year-old Jordan disappeared in the early morning hours of July 23, 1993, while returning to Charlotte from the funeral of a Wilmington friend.
Three weeks later, his body was found among the branches of a tree in Gum Swamp, about 120 miles southeast of Charlotte, and just across the South Carolina line from Robeson County.
Green and Emery were arrested two days later. Investigators said the pair decided to rob Jordan when they found him napping in his Lexus beside U.S. 74. According to court documents, Demery said Green pulled the trigger when Jordan awoke as Green approached.
Green’s attorneys say Demery shot Jordan by himself, then drove to a nearby backyard cook-out to get Green.
No one disputes that the teenagers took Jordan’s jewelry – including an NBA Championship ring that was a gift from Michael – his wallet, shoes and other items. They also stripped the Lexus of its vanity plate that honored Michael Jordan’s signature collegiate jersey: “UNC0023.”
Authorities said they drove into South Carolina, dumped Jordan’s body off Pea Bridge, then spent the next three days joyriding in the Lexus to impress girlfriends and chums. They used Jordan’s then-novel car phone to call family, friends and a 1-900 sex line.
Underwood, the retired SBI agent, says records from those calls proved instrumental in leading authorities to Demery and Green.
With Demery’s help, investigators said they found what they believed to be the murder weapon – a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson, which they said Green and Demery stole during a convenience store robbery a week earlier. After the killing, it was found hidden in a vacuum cleaner in Green’s bedroom.
Authorities also said they found a video recording taken with a stolen camera that showed Green wearing James Jordan’s jewelry. Green, according to documents, eventually led investigators to the NBA ring that Green had buried outside his grandmother’s home.
District Attorney Britt sought the death penalty. At Green’s three-month trial, Demery, who had signed a plea agreement, became the state’s key witness and identified Green as the killer. Both were convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced in March 1996 to life after the jury later declined to put them on Death Row.
Under sentencing laws of the time, they were eligible for parole from the murder charge in 20 years. Green, now 41, was given an additional 10 years for conspiracy. Demery, 40, is up for a custody review this year.
In his closing argument, Britt drew jurors’ attention to a key piece of evidence.
“Blood. Blood from the wound,” Britt said at the time. “Blood that came off that shirt, smeared on the back of that seat. Blood that puddled ... while the body laid there. Blood that Larry Demery tried to clean off.”
Jennifer Elwell, a veteran serologist with the SBI, had testified that James Jordan’s blood caused the stains found in the dead man’s Lexus. Her testimony corroborated the prosecution’s theory of a fatal carjacking. The former forewoman of the jury says in defense documents that Elwell’s blood testimony was key in the jury’s verdict.
Now, Green’s attorneys question whether there was any blood at all. And their source, according to court filings, is Elwell herself.
In an affidavit, Mance said he met with the special agent at SBI headquarters in 2011. He says that Elwell told him she would change her testimony if she could.
Elwell said she “couldn’t confirm the presence of blood” and that the stains on the car seat “could have been anything,” the affidavit states. The defense believes the absence of blood undermines the prosecution’s theory that Green shot Jordan in his car.
Mance’s affidavit says the serologist also told him that she had withheld the results and notes from four tests that failed to test positively for blood. That information was never disclosed despite an order by trial judge Greg Weeks that any SBI lab evidence favorable to the defense was to be shared with Green’s attorneys.
Weeks, now a retired Cumberland County judge, declined last week to talk with the Observer. But in a deposition included with the 2015 filings, he said if Elwell withheld notes, she violated his order about evidence. If she knowingly misrepresented the stains as blood, she submitted “false and misleading testimony on a material fact.”
Elwell still works with the SBI. This week, the Observer emailed her a series of questions about her testimony in the Jordan case. She referred them to an attorney general’s spokeswoman, who said Friday that prosecutors can’t comment on an ongoing case.
In its reply to the 2015 defense filings, the attorney general’s office said allegations that Elwell would change her testimony were hearsay, and thus inadmissible in court.
The alleged confession
According to court documents, Demery cooperated with the investigation from the start. He was 18 at the time but had a history of violence across Robeson County, including several robberies that authorities said he committed with Daniel Green in the weeks leading up to Jordan’s murder.
“These two guys were on a violent crime spree. No one else was at the killing but them,” former SBI agent Tony Underwood says. “By the evidence, they were partners in these matters. As to who fired the shot (that killed Jordan), who knows?”
Green’s attorneys allege in their documents that though Demery identified Green as the gunman, he has admitted on several occasions to killing James Jordan himself. Most of those assertions swing on the word of prison inmates who said they talked with Demery.
The most recent account does not. Shortly after Demery’s arrest, Connee Brayboy says she went to speak with the teenager at the Robeson County Jail. She was the editor of the Carolina Indian Voice, a local Native American newspaper that has since closed.
During their jail conversation, “Mr. Demery stated to me that he was the person who had shot and killed Mr. James Jordan,” Brayboy said in a November sworn statement. Demery also told her the killing had taken place outside of the Lexus, contrary to what his testimony against Green would be.
Brayboy says she did not write or talk about the interview out of concern for Demery’s mother, who was a friend and had been “traumatized by his arrest.”
Reached last week by The Observer, Brayboy, 68, said she suffers from health and memory problems and didn’t remember giving the affidavit. She also said Robeson County has a lot of unsolved murders, and to talk about them can be a dangerous thing to do.
Demery sent word through the prison officials that he would not talk to the Observer for this story.
According to the defense team’s filings, several jurors in Green’s trial may have violated the trial judge’s order by watching or reading news accounts about the case.
Former jury forewoman Paula Locklear did one better. In an affidavit last month, Locklear said that during the trial, she “conducted my own investigation” by visiting the swamp site where Jordan’s body was found.
“This visit influenced my interpretation of the evidence and played a role in my deliberations,” she said in her affidavit. Contrary to the state’s assertion that Jordan died in his car along a Robeson County highway, Locklear said she came to believe that he had been killed in South Carolina, where his body was discovered. Efforts by the Observer to reach Locklear last week were unsuccessful.
Green’s attorneys say Locklear’s admission amounts to grounds for a new trial. Jim Cooney, a prominent Charlotte defense attorney who has handled several appeals of high-profile murder cases, says juror misconduct is a serious offense with potentially significant ramifications.
“As a juror, you decide the case on what’s introduced in the courtroom,” he said.
Charlotte School of Law professor Brian Clarke says a rogue juror investigation “is pretty darn serious.”
“That’s a tremendous problem ... a tremendous no-no for a juror,” he said.
Elizabeth Leland and researcher Maria David contributed to this report.