John Lee Conaway is one of North Carolina’s innocents.
John Lee spent sixteen years on Death Row in Raleigh’s Central Prison for a 1991 crime he did not commit. His sentence was vacated in 2008 yet he remains incarcerated at Franklin Correctional Center in Bunn, NC.
He was born John Lee Conaway but at the age of forty-four was legally adopted into a Chapel Hill family leading the fight for his exoneration and is now John Lee Scott.
John Lee was born in North Carolina and grew up in Washington, DC, and the eastern shore of Maryland. He suffered a childhood of shocking poverty, semi-starvation, and abuse. “My grandmother was the only one who ever loved me hard,” he says.
However, Grandma was poor, uneducated and had struggled all her life, working in a pickle factory, a chicken plant, picking fruit and tomatoes in the fields. In 1991, when she was old and dying of diabetes complications, John Lee went down to Richmond County in North Carolina to help her.
He returned to Maryland three weeks later, unaware that two store clerks had been abducted and murdered in the woods back down in Richmond County.
No physical evidence linked John Lee to the shootings and his side of the story was not investigated. The only testimony against him was given by co-defendants who received reduced sentences for implicating him.
John Lee was offered a plea deal but refused it because he was so confident justice would prevail. And so he went to trial.
At trial, the prosecutor instructed the jury that their decision was simply whether to believe John Lee or the co-defendants. The co-defendants whose testimony sprang from the deal made with the prosecution.
John Lee was sentenced to death.
Unknown at the time, one of the jurors was related to one of John Lee’s accusers and had lied in court about the family connection. As his appeals lawyer would say later, “When we came across that, my jaw dropped. This is something that doesn’t happen except in the movies.”
For sixteen years John Lee waited on Death Row while his appeals climbed court to court. During this time, three other innocents – Jonathan Hoffman, Glen Chapman, and Levon “”Bo” Jones – walked off North Carolina’s Death Row to freedom. Then, in 2008, the Middle District vacated John Lee’s sentence, stipulating “retry or release within 120 days.”
This was too brief a time for the State to prepare for a retrial. All that was needed was to wait 120 days. John Lee’s friends and supporters were ecstatic, planning welcome home parties.
Instead, what happened was disastrous legal bungling. John Lee, in tears and shaking all over his body having been held in solitary confinement awaiting the hearing, barely able to hold the pen, was forced to sign a plea deal he did not understand. He remained in prison.
To that time, John Lee’s legal defense had been handled through the court appointed system. No investigators or experts had been employed to undertake any serious investigation of the actual crime or circumstances around it.