Man exonerated by three-judge panel in 1979 dorm slaying

Man is the 12th person exonerated through the work of the Innocence Inquiry Commission

By Martha Waggoner
Associated Press

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A judicial panel ruled Thursday that a mentally ill man who wore a Superman-like cape in police interviews and compared himself to Dracula did not kill a North Carolina college student in a dorm 40 years ago.

Three judges declared James Blackmon, 66, innocent in the death of Helena Payton, who was stabbed in the neck in a dormitory bathroom of what is now St. Augustine’s University in Raleigh in September 1979. The ruling, which is final, came as part of the unique process under which the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission rules on innocence claims from convicted people and sends the cases it finds credible to a three-judge panel.

Prison officials said, following the exoneration, that they were working Thursday afternoon to release Blackmon, who was serving a life sentence for second-degree murder. Blackmon is the 12th person exonerated through the work of the commission, which legislators established in 2006. More than 2,500 claims have been submitted to the commission since it began operations in 2007.

Blackmon, seated in a wheelchair and wearing orange-and-white striped inmate clothing, gave a slight smile as one of his attorneys spoke to him after the chief judge read the ruling that he was innocent.

“Justice delayed is better than no justice at all,” attorney Jonathan Broun, one of Blackmon’s lawyers, said after Thursday’s close of the three-day hearing .  “One of the problems here is that there’s a problem with how the criminal justice system deals with mentally ill people. And It was a problem in the 1980s, and it allowed an innocent man to get convicted of a crime he didn’t commit.”

Years after the case went cold, Blackmon came to the attention of authorities in 1983, based on information from a confidential informant.  Blackmon entered an Alford plea in 1988, about nine years after the attack on Payton, who went into a coma after surgery and died about a month after the assault. An Alford plea allows a defendant, without admitting guilt, to acknowledge prosecutors have enough evidence to win conviction.

The innocence commission had ruled in November that there was enough evidence of Blackmon’s innocence to warrant the judicial review.

No physical or witness evidence tied Blackmon to the crime so prosecutors relied on his confessions, during which he wore the Superman-like cape, compared himself to Dracula and said he could cause earthquakes and hurricanes. Despite the video recordings of the interrogations with police detectives, both a trial court judge and the state Court of Appeals said he was competent to stand trial.

At the hearing, attorneys for both sides agreed that Blackmon is mentally ill and has a low IQ.

 ”We felt like it had been important from the beginning for this process to play out and for a court to make a decision as to whether Mr. Blackmon was guilty or not because a court had previously upheld his confession,” said Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman after the decision. The prosecutor had argued for Blackmon’s guilt.

DNA evidence didn’t exist at that time. An analysis of fingerprints conducted years later found no prints that matched Blackmon although prints belonging to another man were found.

“There are things that we know today that we didn’t know 40 years ago, quite frankly, and had we had that evidence then, it certainly would have been of tremendous value to the investigators and to the prosecutor in this case,” Freeman said.

Broun said he and co-counsel Beth McNeill are working with Blackmon’s family to find a place for him to live.  “Another thing our system doesn’t do great is deal with mental health problems,” Broun said. “Hopefully, the system now will not forget him at this point.”