A three-judge panel in Granville County on Friday vacated the life sentence of a man who has spent nearly four decades in prison after he was wrongfully convicted of first-degree murder.
Willie Henderson Womble, 60, was just 21 when he was convicted in 1976 of shooting Roy Brent Bullock to death. Bullock, then 48, was working with his 13-year-old daughter as a clerk at a Food Mart convenience store in Butner when he was shot three times during an armed robbery.
Womble, who had been living in Durham at the time, has always claimed his innocence. But it wasn’t until a second man who was also convicted of the crime came forward in 2013 to say that Womble was not involved that the case got a thorough review by the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission.
Sharon Stellato, associate director of the commission, said the three-judge panel ruled in the case Friday when Granville County District Attorney Sam Currin told them that Womble was unquestionably innocent.
“The judges made their decision, and all of them apologized to Mr. Womble,” Stellato said.
Currin also stood up in the courtroom Friday morning and apologized to Womble.
“I apologized to Mr. Womble and to the family of Mr. Roy Bullock, who was the victim,” Currin said later. “I just felt it was right. The system and the state of North Carolina failed them for 39 years.”
The robbery and homicide took place on Nov. 5, 1975, at 11:35 p.m. The robbers took $380 out of the cash register and fled. Bullock died a little more than two weeks later on Nov. 19, at Watts Hospital in Durham.
Womble was convicted on July 7, 1976. A second man, Joseph Lee Perry, 21 at the time, was also convicted. Both were sentenced to life in prison.
Womble’s alleged role in the robbery and murder: He was paid $20 to stand on the corner and act as lookout.
Decades passed, and Womble, possibly because of his limited mental capacity, never filed a motion for appropriate relief to challenge his conviction.
Then, on April 4, 2013, the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission received a letter from Perry stating that Womble was innocent.
Truth emerges after death
Perry reached out to the commission after Albert Willis, the man who was actually with him the night of the robbery and murder, died.
Willis was one of four people charged in the case, but the charges against him were dismissed.
“Mr. Perry felt like he could come clean without putting Willis in prison,” Currin said.
Stellato said Perry stated that he lived by a “code” and that he was not going to “rat someone out.” She said Perry’s decision to come forward with the truth did not make him a hero.
“He was the reason Mr. Womble was in prison,” she said.
Still, both Currin and Christine Mumma, executive director of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence and a driving force behind the creation of the state’s innocence commission, said Womble likely would have died in prison if Perry hadn’t come forward.
“This is a case with unusual circumstances,” said Mumma, who said that if Womble had lawyers who followed normal procedures and filed a motion for appropriate relief, it would not have had the same impact.
Currin agreed. He said that if Perry came forward at the behest of an attorney representing Womble, there would have been questions about his credibility. There would have been the possibility of a defense attorney putting pressure on Perry, or “putting words in his mouth.”
“The fact that Perry came forward rather than Mr. Womble” was significant, Currin said. “He never filed for appropriate relief himself. Because of his diminished mental capacity, he never thought about it.”
Detective wrote confession
On Dec. 7, 1975, a little more than a month into the homicide investigation, Durham police detective Lorenzo Leathers reported to State Bureau of Investigation agents that he had “cleared” Bullock’s murder because Womble had implicated himself, the innocence commission reported. Leathers was interrogating Womble about another crime in the Durham jail when the Butner shooting came up.
But Womble’s confession was apparently coerced. SBI records of their investigation indicated Womble’s statement, which he recanted five days later, was handwritten by Leathers.
Mumma said that Womble’s limited mental capacity, threats from law enforcement and a detective who fed him facts about the case led him to sign the false confession. She said those were similar factors in another case this year that freed two other North Carolina men, Henry McCollum and Leon Brown of Robeson County, who were both wrongfully convicted of murder.
“In 2008, the legislature passed a law requiring the recording of interrogations,” Mumma said. “This is another case showing how important that is.”
A cap on compensation
After Womble was exonerated Friday, he was transported back to the Dan River Work Farm in Caswell County, where he was later processed out of the corrections system and released just after 3 p.m. Womble will not have to apply for a pardon because he was exonerated. He will receive $50,000 from the state for each year he spent behind bars, with a cap of $750,000.
“It’s something, but not nearly enough,” Mumma said. “I hope someone will be there to watch out for Mr. Womble. He’s facing significant hurdles.”
Both Womble and Bullock’s family members were in the courtroom Friday.
“Mr. Bullock’s family went over to hug Mr. Womble,” Mumma said. “They told him how sorry they are for everything he lost.”