By Brian Stull, Staff Attorney, ACLU Capital Punishment Project. Brian helped represent Levon "Bo" Jones, an innocent man who was released from prison on May 2, 2008, after unjustly and erroneously spending 14 years on North Carolina's death row.
I've always known Bo Jones was innocent. But I had seen too much injustice in the last eight years working as a criminal defense lawyer to trust that his innocence alone would set him free.
During the weeks leading up to Bo's release on May 2, 2008, ACLU Capital Punishment Project Staff Attorney Cassy Stubbs, our co-counsel Buddy Conner and I spent a lot of time preparing for his trial, working on our defense themes, visuals, and cross-examinations, completing our final investigation, and filing our final pretrial motions. We often joked about what we would do upon Bo's acquittal, but then quickly returned to work, not wanting to jinx a good result.
In March, we had provided the District Attorney with sworn statements by Lovely Lorden, stating that she recanted her allegations that Bo Jones killed Leamon Grady. On April 14, 2008, we filed a motion to dismiss the charges due to this recantation. Although we believed we would win the case at trial, we were pessimistic about the judge granting a motion to dismiss the charges: we operated under the assumption that we would lose any motion that would benefit Bo.
Around April 24, 2008, we learned that the assistant district attorney wanted us to come to court the next week, but he would not tell us why. We were suspicious because the only motion pending was our motion to dismiss. Was the prosecutor setting a date for a hearing on our motion? For a moment, I let down my guard and dreamed that the reason for the hearing was dismissal of the charges against Bo.
As that date approached, we left numerous messages for the prosecutor asking why he wanted us in court. The prosecutor never responded, and we came to believe we might not go to court after all. I reverted to my ordinary cynicism, believing that any hearing would be for some reason that would not help Bo's case. On Thursday, May 1, 2008 — the day we thought we would be in court at the prosecutor's request — we were working hard on the case in our Durham office. I was practicing my cross-examination of the State's medical examiner — hoping to bring out the key point that the time of death was long after Lorden said the shooting occurred. Buddy was giving me a difficult time as he played the role of the medical examiner, and Cassy was giving me some good pointers on cross. We worked on the cross through lunchtime, trying to perfect it. During our preparation, a glimmer of hope appeared. Bo's brother Calvin called us to say that Bo had been brought from the Raleigh prison to the county jail in Duplin, and that he needed clothes for court. We again called the prosecutor, demanding an explanation in a telephone message. We received no response.
I left work early to take care of my son but kept checking my Blackberry, hoping for news. Finally, at 5:30 p.m., I saw a message from Cassy with the subject line: THEY ARE DISMISSING BO JONES. I have never felt so many emotions at once. I jumped up and down in my kitchen, yelling, "Yes, yes!" My 21-month-old son soon began imitating me, joining in my shouts of glee. And I was soon crying. I think it was for the sheer relief, the sadness for the 14 years on death row that Bo lost, and for how close he came to being executed for a crime he did not commit. In increasing waves, those feelings returned again and again on Friday, when I finally saw Bo released, and on Monday, when Bo spoke to the press for the first time and told the world what he had said repeatedly since his arrest in 1992 — "I'm innocent."