Levon “Bo” Jones served 15 years in prison, 13 of those on death row, after being wrongfully convicted of robbery and murder. The state’s case was based almost entirely on the testimony of a single witness, who presented at least five conflicting stories to police throughout the course of the investigation. Despite widespread recognition of Jones’ innocence prior to his exoneration, he was not freed until the witness officially recanted her testimony in 2008.
Quick Facts: Levon "Bo" Jones
- Race: African American
- County: Duplin
- Date of Crime: February 28, 1987
- Victim: Leamon Grady, White
- Conviction Date: August 19, 1993
- Exoneration Date: May 2, 2008
- Years incarcerated: 15
- Years on death row: 13
- Real Perpetrator Found: No
- Errors: Jones was convicted based on a lying witness who was paid by prosecutors. His attorneys failed to present mitigating evidence that might have spared Jones a death sentence.
Jones, who is African American, was sentenced to death in 1993 for the murder of 67-year-old Leamon Grady, a well-known white bootlegger in Duplin County. Grady was found robbed and shot in his home in the early hours of February 28, 1987. Upon initial investigation of the crime scene, police failed to collect fingerprints, evidence from bloody items and footprints, and information on a pistol found at the scene.
The lack of basic evidence and information regarding the crime left police without a suspect for three years. It was not until a $4,000 reward for information was posted that Lovely Lorden, an ex-girlfriend of Jones and the primary witness against him, came forward with her first story. In her 2008 affidavit, Lorden stated that an officer had told her about the reward and that she “knew about the reward before the trials.” At trial however, the jury was not told about the reward or that Lorden was compensated for her testimony.
Initially, Lorden constructed a story that only named Jones as the perpetrator. Four different stories later, she had named Larry Lamb and Ernest Matthews to be responsible as well. According to Lorden, the three men entered Grady’s house to rob him on the morning of February 28, 1987. Although Lorden was waiting in the car outside, she allegedly saw Jones carrying a gun into Grady’s home and heard two gunshots before the three men ran back to the car. Despite police being unable to corroborate the details of Lorden’s stories—such as where she claimed the gun was disposed after the crime—Jones, Lamb, and Matthews were charged with first-degree murder. Lorden received the $4,000 reward for her testimony.
During Jones’ trial, his attorneys did not interview any witnesses nor file any motions. They failed to bring up evidence implicating another suspect in Grady’s death and did not present any mitigating factors to the jury. Beyond this, in a huge conflict of interest, one of his attorneys was actually related to the victim.
In 2006, U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle called Jones’ defense “constitutionally deficient” and removed Jones from death row after finding that his trial lawyers failed to investigate Lorden’s history and uncover evidence that would have raised doubt about her testimony. Boyle also said that Jones might have been spared a death sentence had mitigating factors–such as Jones’ mental health problems–been presented. Boyle said: “Given the weakness of the prosecution’s case and its heavy reliance on the testimony of Lovely Lorden, there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.”
Despite this ruling, Duplin County prosecutors kept Jones in jail for another two years as they prepared to retry him for the crime. They dropped charges only after Lorden officially recanted her testimony in a sworn affidavit in 2008. Lorden said she “was certain that Bo did not have anything to do with Mr. Grady’s murder” and she acknowledged that “much of what I testified to was simply not true.” Additionally, she stated that: “[A Duplin County Sheriff Deputy] let me know what he wanted me to say in my testimony for both Bo Jones’ trail and Larry Lamb’s trial” and that “During the investigation of Mr. Grady’s murder, one of the officers at the Duplin County Sheriff’s Department threatened me.”
Jones was exonerated on May 2, 2008. “We never had any doubt about Bo Jones’ innocence,” his post-conviction lawyer, Ernest Connor, said at the time of his release. “We knew when we started the case that there were serious holes in the evidence. After we began seriously investigating the case, it completely unraveled.”
Larry Lamb, who received a life sentence for the crime, was exonerated in August 2013. All charges were dropped and Lamb was freed after spending nearly 20 years in prison. Ernest Matthews had pled no contest after hearing the sentences of Jones and Lamb, and was released on parole in 2000.