James Blackmon, who spent more than three decades in prison for the 1979 murder of a Raleigh college student, went free Thursday with all charges dismissed.
A three-judge panel declared Blackmon, who is 66 and uses a wheelchair, innocent after a three-day hearing in Wake County Superior Court.
His lawyers attacked the only piece of evidence in his case: a confession he gave while he was a mentally ill patient at Dorothea Dix Hospital.
As the decision was read, he nodded and smiled.
“Justice delayed is better than no justice at all,” said Jonathan Broun, Blackmon’s lawyer with N.C. Prisoner Legal Service. “There’s a problem with how the criminal justice system deals with mentally ill people. It was a problem in the 1980s ... I am concerned that some problems would be repeated.”
The 1988 conviction stemmed from a slaying at what was then St. Augustine’s College, where student Helena Payton was stabbed to death in the bathroom of her dormitory, Latham Hall.
It went unsolved for several years until Raleigh police received a confidential tip that a patient at Dix had been talking about killing women, particularly the St. Augustine’s student.
Police narrowed down the description of the patient and determined that Blackmon was the only person to fit the profile. They interviewed him multiple times, but as his lawyers pointed out at this week’s hearing, he was wearing a Superman cape at the time. He also spoke of being able to cause earthquakes and compared himself to Dracula. Witnesses testified this week that false confessions are especially likely when patients are mentally ill and have lower intelligence. Blackmon’s IQ has been measured at 69.
Raleigh police arrested Blackmon based on statements he made while a patient at Dix, 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.
But the only evidence linking Blackmon to this crime were his own statements, Broun said.
“And what do his statements show?” he asked. “They show he’s delusional. He’s eager to please, and he’s easily led.”
Evidence also showed that Blackmon was “almost certainly” in New York at the time of the slaying. A fellow 1979 student and witness saw his picture in a lineup and could not identify him as the man she saw in Latham Hall.
At the same time, Broun said, another man’s fingerprints were found in the bathroom, and a records check found he had no business being on campus as a student or a worker.
Created by the General Assembly in 2006, the state Innocence Inquiry Commission investigates claims of factual innocence after defendants are convicted.
Last year, the commission determined there was enough evidence of Blackmon’s innocence to merit a new hearing. Fewer than 1 percent of all its cases reach that point, according to testimony this week.
Three Superior Court judges from across North Carolina served on the panel in Blackmon’s case: John “Joe” Craig III, James “Jim” Hardin Jr. and Julia Lynn Gullett.
Throughout the case, Wake County prosecutors argued that Blackmon must prove his innocence during this hearing — a rarity in the legal world. They asked the judges to consider that the evidence presented this week did not meet that burden.
“Disturbing the outcome of a case 40 years old is a matter to be carefully considered,” said Assistant District Attorney Mark Stevens. “When there is not clear and convincing evidence of innocence, a conviction is not to be disturbed.”
District Attorney Lorrin Freeman noted that investigators now have multiple tools not available at the time, including DNA evidence, and that methods of questioning suspects have evolved.
“There are things we know today that we didn’t know 40 years ago,” she said. “If we had that evidence today, it would certainly be of use.”
Many of the people with knowledge of Payton’s murder are dead, Freeman said, and the detectives who investigated the case have retired. So it can’t be reopened in search of a new suspect.
“Our hearts go out to the Payton family,” she said. “We accept the court’s decision.”
From the bench, Craig said Blackmon will be released “forthwith.” Broun said arrangements are being made for him to stay with family members.