Jerry Anderson spent a lifetime building the 1,500-cow dairy farm he owned in rural Caldwell County. At age 46, he lost it all in the space of a few months, after he was arrested for the murder of his wife, Emily Anderson. He spent 18 months in jail and was tried for his life, despite a lack of any credible evidence connecting him to the crime.
During his death penalty trial in July 2007, all the evidence against him was discredited. It became apparent that Emily had died days after Anderson last saw her, during a time when he had an ironclad alibi. The trial ended with a hung jury — eleven jurors voting not guilty and the lone holdout telling the press that he had a vision in which God told him to vote guilty. Prosecutors dropped the charges and never retried Anderson.
Anderson regained his freedom and is rebuilding his life, but he says he will never be able to repair all the damage from being accused of a murder he did not commit. He has moved back to his home state of Kentucky, leaving his home in Sawmills where, before his wife’s death, he had built a successful business, a wide network of friends, and a deep connection to his church. While many friends and church members stood by him, his pastor told him that some members asked that he not be allowed to return.
He now owns a more modest beef cattle farm with 500 animals. He enjoys his new work, but some days he still gets frustrated at having to rebuild his business when he should be planning for retirement. He has settled into a mostly solitary existence, unsure how new people will respond to his story. “You’re branded with it,” Anderson says. “To a lot of people, you’re guilty and they couldn’t prove it. You’re never innocent. In some people’s eyes, once you’re charged with it, you will be guilty until you die.”
Emily disappeared on Dec. 29, 2005. Anderson called police to report her missing after she failed to show up for a dinner party with friends from her church choir. For days, Anderson and fellow church members searched the county, and Anderson communicated with law enforcement regularly. He allowed officers to search his farm and interview his employees. He even submitted to a polygraph test, which he passed, confirming that he had nothing to do with Emily’s disappearance. During those days and nights that they searched for Emily, Anderson was never alone. Friends, family, and his pastor and fellow parishioners at Dry Ponds Baptist Church descended on the Anderson home, plastering the county with fliers, searching the rural roads, and helping Anderson with tasks on the farm.
Quick Facts: Jerry Anderson
Date of Crime: December 29, 2005
Victim: Emily Anderson, White, Age 48
Acquittal Date: Charges were dropped in December 2007
Years Incarcerated: 1.5
Real Perpetrator Found: No
Errors: In addition to pursuing the death penalty with barely any credible evidence, the state failed to investigate major pieces of evidence that could have helped to identify the real killer.
Nine days after her disappearance, on January 7, 2006, Emily’s truck was discovered at a Quality Inn in Duncan, South Carolina, 120 miles away. Officers from the Caldwell County Sheriff’s Department went to pick it up, but failed to conduct a thorough search for evidence. It was the tow truck driver, after hauling the abandoned vehicle back to North Carolina in an open wrecker, who forced open the large toolbox in the truck bed and discovered Emily’s body. She had been shot twice.
The sheriff’s department’s blunder made the news, and the sheriff, who was facing a contentious reelection campaign, had to admit to reporters that he had no suspects. Soon after, Anderson felt the investigation close in on him. Anderson was arrested on January 27 and sent to the Caldwell County Jail. In the first 30 days, his cows, tractors, trucks and all his farm equipment were auctioned off by creditors. The down payment on a new home and dairy he had been preparing to build in Tennessee was also lost, along with the rental home where he and Emily had been living. He says that what little was left of his farm was plundered by neighboring farmers, who figured he was never coming back. Creditors and members of Emily’s family filed lawsuits against him.
At the Caldwell County Jail, where he spent most of the next 18 months behind bars, Anderson says he felt as if officials tried to break his spirit. “They’re wanting to drive you into a plea bargain,” he says. “They want to make things so bad that you’ll do anything to get out.” Shortly before his trial, prosecutors offered him a plea deal. If he had pled guilty to second-degree murder, he would have had to serve only five years with credit for time served. He refused.
He was kept in a windowless two-man cell, which sometimes housed as many as six prisoners. He ate his meals in his cell and was not allowed any time in the common room or outdoors. He was also not allowed any reading material. Anderson says he often went a week or more without being allowed to shower; his longest stretch without bathing was two and a half weeks. He was never given clean sheets, and was only allowed to shave and cut his hair when his attorney got a court order allowing him to clean up for his trial. He was allowed to brush his teeth only occasionally, and eventually a tooth became so abscessed and painful that he pulled it out with his fingers. Anderson never saw or spoke to his son, who was in sixth grade and lived with Anderson’s ex-wife in Asheville “I didn’t want my son to see me shackled and chained,” he said.
At his 2007 trial, one piece of evidence after the next was debunked:
- Two different medical examiners, including North Carolina’s Chief Medical Examiner, concluded that Emily died two to four days before her body was discovered. The state’s theory of Anderson’s guilt hinged on Emily having been dead for at least nine days, but the prosecutor produced no medical experts to support that theory.
- Prosecutors speculated that Anderson had taken out a $4 million insurance policy on Emily’s life because he planned to kill her. However, the evidence showed that Emily and Jerry were in the process of expanding their farm, and that the insurance was required by their creditors. They had also recently purchased a $10 million life insurance policy for Jerry.
- Evidence from one of the two cadaver dogs who supposedly “hit” on a spot beneath a tree at Anderson’s farm, bolstering the state’s theory that Jerry killed Emily at the farm and then transported her body to South Carolina (despite there being not a shred of evidence of that 240-mile journey), was thrown out by the judge. Testimony showed that the two dogs’ handler, a private business-owner, used improper techniques, fed the dogs treats to entice them to “hit” on the spot, and failed to videotape the search.
Meanwhile, it became clear that important evidence that might have helped identify the killer was ignored. A rape kit was taken from Emily’s body but never tested. Witnesses, who reported that they saw Emily alive in South Carolina after her disappearance, were never interviewed. Hairs found in her truck were never tested, and reports from people who said they saw Emily with a strange man were not investigated. Anderson has had to accept that his wife’s killer will never be found.
When the trial ended, Anderson was widowed, homeless, and unemployed. For months, he stayed with a friend. A lifelong workaholic, he struggled to fill his days; he took long walks and ruminated over his case. His son, now attending college on a full scholarship, says his father talked endlessly about the case, obsessively rehashing every detail. Gradually, he started reassembling his collection of tools and working on tractors in a rented storage shed. He rented an apartment in Morganton, and began the process of buying a farm in Kentucky.
Now, nearly a decade after his trial, Anderson says he has come to the conclusion that the criminal justice system is not about seeking truth. Rather, it’s about each side trying to prove its own theory, sometimes in spite of the evidence. “It’s about winning,” Anderson says. “It doesn’t matter who’s right and who’s wrong.” He has many unanswered questions about the last days of his wife’s life, and he still struggles sometimes with anger and depression, but he says he no longer allows the ordeal of his wrongful prosecution to dominate his life. “If they say anything about me,” he says, “I want it to be that I survived.”