Murder convict wore Superman cape, compared himself to Dracula, during confession

gavel in courtroom
gavel in courtroom Getty Images/iStockphoto

In 1979, a St. Augustine’s College student was stabbed to death in the bathroom outside her dorm room, a murder that sent police scrambling for suspects.

Four years later, based on a confidential informant’s tip, they interviewed a patient at Dorothea Dix Hospital: 30-year-old James Blackmon, who had a history of schizophrenic affective disorder.

While police interviewed him, court files said, Blackmon wore a Superman cape, described his ability to create earthquakes and boasted of having telepathic powers. He compared himself to the Dracula.

On Tuesday, a three-judge panel began a hearing on whether Blackmon, now 66 and in a wheelchair, should have three-decade old murder charges dismissed.

“James Blackmon is innocent,” said Jonathan Broun, one of his attorneys. “He was not in Latham Hall. He was not on St. Aug’s campus.”

The state Innocence Inquiry Commission determined last year that enough evidence of Blackmon’s innocence exists to merit a new hearing. Three Superior Court judges from around the state will listen to new evidence. Created by the General Assembly in 2006, the commission investigates claims of factual innocence after defendants are convicted.

Bloody garment in woods

Blackmon was arrested in 1983 in the stabbing of Helena Payton, who was found in the sixth-floor bathroom of Latham Hall, a women’s dormitory. St. Aug’s is now St. Augustine’s University.

Raleigh police arrested Blackmon based on statements he made while a patient at Dorothea Dix Hospital, court records said. He led detectives to a wooded area where a bloody garment had been recovered. Later, he showed detectives a crime-scene toilet stall and said, “This is where it happened,” washing his hands in a sink.

Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman, arguing the case for the state, said Raleigh police interviewed dozens of witnesses after the 1979 stabbing, and had no access to DNA evidence or modern forensic tools.

Blackmon was the only person who fit the confidential informant’s description, and he gave police details that fit the description of the crime. Though his attorneys tried to suppress his confession, a Wake County judge issued a 14-page opinion denying their motion. Shortly after, Blackmon pleaded guilty and the state Court of Appeals upheld the conviction.

This case, Freeman said, presents the rare requirement that the defendant prove his innocence.

“Where there is not clear and convincing evidence of innocence,” she said, “a conviction should not be disturbed.”

Low IQ

Allison Redlich, a criminology professor at George Mason University in Virginia, testified that she thought Blackmon’s confession was “highly unreliable” because information he gave about the crime was fed to him by his interrogators.

His IQ has been measured as low as 69 and he has long taken psychotropic medications, she testified, adding that police “capitalized” on his delusions.

He denied going to St. Augustine’s when they interviewed him, she said, but he would change answers when they suggested several themes involving “Bad James” or his body being present at the scene without his mind. They also went out of their way to present themselves as friends, she said, hiding the seriousness of the situation.

“It was quite easy to get Mr. Blackmon to flip-flop,” Redlich said.

Testimony continues Tuesday.

Josh Shaffer covers Wake County and federal courts. He has been a reporter for The News & Observer since 2004 and previously wrote a column about unusual people and places.