Jonathan Hoffman received a death sentence and spent 11 years in prison for the murder of a jewelry store owner, but the real killer was never caught. Hoffman was convicted largely based on the testimony of his cousin, who received thousands of dollars, immunity for crimes he admitted on the witness stand, and a reduced sentence for a bank robbery he committed. Prosecutors made this deal in secret, hiding it from both the jury and the judge.
The prosecutors, Ken Honeycutt and Scott Brewer, were later criminally and civilly investigated for not revealing the deals promised to the witness — and for removing a reference to the deal from the case notes they handed over to the judge.
Hoffman was finally freed in 2007, 11 years after he was sent to death row and three years after he was awarded a new trial due to prosecutorial misconduct.
At the time, his attorney David Rudolf said, “As a result of what the State Bar described as egregious misconduct by the prosecutors, the real killer was never caught. That’s the lesson the public, and prosecutors, must recognize. Cheating to win a case doesn’t protect the public. It hurts everyone.”
However, prosecutors and law enforcement seem reluctant to learn that lesson. In the years since Hoffman’s release, many more cases of hidden evidence, secret deals with witnesses, and false testimony by state crime lab investigators have come to light across North Carolina.
Quick Facts: Jonathan Hoffman
- Race: African American
- County: Union County
- Date of Crime: 1995
- Victim: Danny Cook, White, Age 35
- Conviction Date: November 1996
- Exoneration Date: December 11, 2007
- Years incarcerated: 11
- Years on death row: 10
- Real Perpetrator Found: No
- Errors: Hoffman was convicted based on a lying witness witness who was secretly paid thousands of dollars by prosecutors.
Hoffman was arrested based on an anonymous tip, several months after Danny Cook was found shot to death in his Marshville jewelry store in 1995. There was no physical evidence linking Hoffman to the crime, and he was convicted based on the testimony of three witnesses. One was a folk healer who claimed to have sold Hoffman a special root that would protect him from arrest.
The star witness was Hoffman’s cousin, Johnell Porter, who said Hoffman had confessed to him — testimony for which he was compensated, and which he later recanted.
In November 1996, Hoffman, who is African-American, was convicted of first-degree murder by an all-white jury. One of his prosecutors, Union County District Attorney Ken Honeycutt, was known for wearing a noose-shaped lapel pin and handing them out to his assistants when they won death sentences. Hoffman’s legal claims of race discrimination were ignored on appeal.
After the secret deal was exposed, a judge granted Hoffman a new trial in 2004. In 2006, Porter told the Charlotte Observer that he lied at Hoffman’s trial to get revenge on his cousin, because he believed Hoffman had stolen money from him and turned on him when they were indicted for robbing a bank.
Prosecutors finally dropped charges in 2007, admitting that they did not have enough evidence to convict Hoffman.